6 storylines that make 2018 NFL pre-season worth watching

Andrew Luck. (Darron Cummings/AP)

The long wait is over, football fans. The NFL is finally back (sort of). Pre-season isn’t exactly high-stakes football, but after six months off the field, we’ll take it.

The Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens gave us our first taste of NFL action during last week’s Hall of Fame Game, but the bulk of this year’s pre-season contests kick off Thursday night with 24 teams hitting the field. (Friday and Saturday each feature two games to round out the week.)

Pre-season brings a number of intriguing storylines to watch as we prepare for a new campaign with new coaches, a fresh crop of rookies, contracts to earn and those still yet to sign. This year in particular features some particularly compelling plots. Here are a few we’re watching.

Luck’s long-awaited return

If you think you’ve been waiting a while for football, just think of how Andrew Luck must feel. It’s been 585 days since the Indianapolis Colts quarterback last suited up for a game, and the streak stops Thursday when he takes his first snap against the Seattle Seahawks since undergoing shoulder surgery in January 2017.

Luck returns to a team that looks pretty different from the one he played with back in 2016, including a new head coach in Frank Reich and a new general manager in Chris Ballard.

The happiest guy in Indy right now? It’s gotta be receiver T.Y. Hilton, whose strong rapport with Luck made them one of the league’s most productive duos. He’s back for another year in Indianapolis, and it looks like their chemistry might be, too.

Rookie QBs in the rotation

Teams don’t usually field their biggest stars during the pre-season — and if they do, it’s certainly not for long — as they don’t want to risk injuries. That means we get to see plenty of play from the guys clawing for roster spots. Cue the rookie QBs.

April’s draft featured five quarterbacks selected in Round 1 – four within the top 10 – but will we see any of them suit up to start the regular season? That’s all yet to-be-determined, but pre-season will give us an idea of how they’re adjusting to life in the pros.

The Browns are, so far, pledging patience with No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, with head coach Hue Jackson naming Tyrod Taylor his No.1 guy. We will, however, be getting a good look at Mayfield when he takes his share of pre-season snaps.

The Bills seem to be keeping everyone guessing when it comes to No. 7 overall pick Josh Allen’s spot on a messy-looking depth chart with A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman also bringing a few question marks of their own.

Both Sam Darnold (No. 3 overall) and Josh Rosen (10) will have their work cut out for them, too. A healthy Sam Bradford could delay Rosen’s debut, while Darnold is better set up for success with the NFL’s favourite big bro, Josh McCown, there to guide him to his eventual place as starter.

Lamar Jackson (No. 30) got his first taste of NFL competition during the Hall of Fame game, completing four of 10 passes for 33 yards and a touchdown while also giving up an interception. He also rushed for 25 yards in his first attempt at claiming the backup role behind veteran Joe Flacco.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
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August 08 2018

Can Saquon Barkley keep the RB streak alive?

For three straight years, we’ve seen a highly-touted running back selected in the top 10 and follow it up with a rookie performance worthy of the hype (Rams’ Toddy Gurley, Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette). We’ve also seen later-round RBs light it up as rookies, too, which made many people question the logic of drafting Saquon Barkley too high this past April.

Early indications suggest Barkley is more than living up to expectations, and we’ll more than likely get to see him work his magic on the field Thursday night. He should fit in seamlessly with the Giants’ now-healthy offence and help them get back into contention after a terrible year in New York last season filled with injuries and coaching blunders.

Getting our first glimpse of the new catch rule

Officials will be implementing several rule changes this season, among them the new and (more or less improved) catch rule, which was voted in unanimously by all 32 team owners and features simpler language than the versions we’ve seen in seasons past.

Essentially, the “you must survive the ground” part has been eliminated, with the catch rule as a whole skewing more toward common sense for what the average fan would call a catch. For context: Had this year’s rule been implemented last season, Jesse James’ late-game non-catch controversy against the Patriots would have indeed been ruled a catch (and the Steelers probably would have won the game). And that infamous Dez Bryant non-catch against the Packers back in 2014? Yup, that would’ve counted, too.

Speaking of Dez…

Where will Dez land?

While we’re focusing on the field early this off-season, there are several off-the-field storylines to keep an eye on these days, too — and the status of Dez Bryant is certainly one of them.

He appeared to set his sights on the Giants, but that hasn’t happened. The Ravens reportedly showed interest, but Bryant didn’t bite. OddsShark has the Browns as the betting favourite to land the once-great receiver (his most recent prolific season came back in 2014: 88 receptions for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns), and it does make sense if we’re talking one-year pact between two parties looking to rebound, especially considering the Browns’ uncertainty at the position.

Sure, Bryant isn’t quite the elite playmaker he once was, but at 29, he’s also not that far removed from being exactly that. He remains the league leader in touchdowns since 2012 (58) and also holds several franchise records with the Cowboys. It’ll take a specific kind of coach to reign him in at times, but you can point to just about every team in the league when you’re looking for club who could use a big, deep threat who could be ready to pen the second chapter of his career.

Can Gruden get his game back?

The annual off-season coaching carousel brings new faces to new sidelines every year, but the most intriguing coaching hire of 2018 is Jon Gruden who is out of the broadcast booth after eight years on Monday Night Football and back for second stint as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. The defensive-minded coach, who’s always good for a stirring quote or two, is known for demanding a lot from his players — especially at quarterback.

QB Derek Carr had this to say about his “absolutely amazing” relationship with Gruden, via ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez:

“The way he demands from me, he gets after me, just like he gets after everybody else,” Carr said earlier this week. “If I screw up, he lets me know it, in front of everybody. And it just makes an openness about our team… there’s no secrets, man. If I screwed it up, I screwed it up, no problem. But at the same time, he is the same guy telling each and every one of his players — you will catch him just after practice, if you just watch him — if he yelled at someone, he is going to go grab them, ‘Man, I love you, man, the reason I am getting after you is because I see this and this in you,’ and so anybody who has played for him, anyone who knows him, they want to run through a brick wall for the guy.”

Off the field, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on the status of edge rusher Khalil Mack. He’s the star of the club’s defence, and he hasn’t been with the team all summer as he continues to hold out for a long-term deal.

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