NFL 2019: Five things to look out for

Luke Bradshaw
Sports Writer
Baker Mayfield goes into his second season (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

This week marks the return of the NFL in what will be its 100th season. With the season ending in Miami for Super Bowl 54, here’s five reasons to get excited.

Belief in the Browns

The Cleveland Browns are either over-hyped or about to make a Super Bowl run. One thing is certain, these are not the perennial losers of a couple of years ago. Last year was good. After one win in two seasons they used their stored up draft picks well, built a good defense and crucially landed a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield. Seven wins and a new coach later they signed Odell Beckham Jr and suddenly there could be post-season games in Cleveland.

OBJ has his critics, but there’s no denying that Browns have genuine star power now. Along with Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb, Mayfield’s offense is loaded. He put up a record 27 touchdowns last season, a record for a rookie, and will expect more from himself and them this term. Factor in that the Browns could have a top 10 defense with Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon pass rushing, Sheldon Richardson up front and Denzel Ward adding to a brilliant rookie season, and their conference rivals could be concerned.

Kyler Murray to break the mould

No.1 pick Kyler Murray (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Kyler Murray put up incredible numbers in Oklahoma – 42 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and rushed for over 1,000 yards. Those performances, along with a Heisman trophy, meant very few eyebrows were raised when he was taken at No.1 in the draft by the Arizona Cardinals, but Murray is only 5ft 10in, and for NFL quarter-backs that’s a problem.

His talent in unquestionable, and he is scintillating to watch when throwing and rushing, but the Cardinals were horrible last season and he’ll have a bad offensive line in front of him.

Key to the Cardinal’s offense will be the relationship between Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury. While both are new to the NFL, this is a relationship seven years in the making, through high school and college. If they get it right they could bring some much needed cheer to Phoenix but the odds are well and truly stacked against them.

Alarm bells in Oakland

Antonio Brown and Derek Carr (Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Hard Knocks was only ever going to rock up at the Raiders. A year on it’s still seems quite inexplicable that Jon Gruden was handed a 10-year contract given his time out of the game. Then he sold his two best players and came away with a 4-12 record.

This year they’ve invited Antonio Brown, Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict into the building; something is going to have to give, for better or for worse. And someone, at some point, is going to have to have a word with rookie safety Johnathan Abram because he is going to fall out with a lot of his teammates if he stays at full tilt like he did in training camp. Still, once he decapitates a receiver in week 1, Raider nation will take him to their hearts. In their last year in Oakland, this team might just burn the place to the ground before they walk out of the door.

Colts to collapse?

Andrew Luck announces his retirement (Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

Everything was set for the Colts. A great defense, weapons in attack, salary cap room, sensible draft building and a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. Super Bowl conversations were sensible and then it all came crashing down when Andrew Luck retired half way through training camp.

Mercifully, they have arguably the best backup quarterback in the league, Jacoby Brissett, and so handed him an immediate $30 million contract, but he’s not Luck. That said, the Colts should still be good, they have too many good pieces in play not to be. DE Justin Houston and LB Darius Leonard will both make huge plays on one side of the ball, while the likes T.Y Hilton and Eric Ebron give Brissett Pro Bowl options to throw to. Expect them to battle the Texans for the AFC South despite Luck’s extraordinary exit.

All about the offense

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan (Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sean McVay love-in took a serious dent in the Super Bowl when, and he admitted so himself, he was utterly out-coached by Bill Belechick (but then, who hasn’t been?) Despite that, he is still one of the most exciting offensive schemers in the league and is now joined in the league by a bunch of friends and disciples in the shape of Zac Taylor, Matt LaFleur, Kingsbury and Kyle Shanahan.

Taylor has a lot of work to do at the Bengals, perhaps more than Kingsbury given he has Andy Dalton and not Murray to do his work, but Shanahan should have Jimmy Garoppolo back and LaFleur can call upon Aaron Rodgers to be Aaron Rodgers. All of which means offenses should be more creative and explosive than before. It used to be that defences won titles, but given how the Chiefs went last season, 2019 should see offensive invention and innovation on the up. The Rams vs Chiefs shootout last season could be a sign of things to come.