It’s a new year, and with it comes new story lines. Which young stars will step up and have breakthrough seasons? Which aging stars will begin to fade? There are so many questions, but starting Sunday we begin to get our answers. So what story lines are you interested in? These are the matchups that most intrigue me in Week 1.
1 Jordy Nelson vs Richard Sherman
There’s been a lot of noise in Seattle this offseason surrounding Richard Sherman. No one doubts he’s still an exceptional corner, but being in trade talks throughout the offseason and combating locker room issues can have an effect on how you play.
But the same does not go for Jordy Nelson. Despite a big comeback year in 2016, there have been some who question Nelson’s explosiveness down the field. He had only four plays of 40+ yards, compared to eight in 2014, and he averaged 13.0 yards per catch, his lowest number since 2010. Jordy Nelson also didn’t do himself any favors amongst his critics when he talked about possibly retiring in 2-3 years.
It was evident at times last year that Nelson struggled to create separation for Aaron Rodgers to get him the ball, a problem that really spread team wide, and that will certainly be a challenge again in Week 1 against Sherman.
2 Dak Prescott vs Giants secondary
Dak had a great rookie campaign. But just ask Robert Griffin III how that can turn out. The Cowboys have a much tougher schedule on paper than they did in 2016, and with expectations sky-high for the second-year QB and his offense, it’s important for Prescott to get off on the right foot.
But that will be difficult to do against the New York Giants. The Giants had 17 interceptions in 2016 (tied for second in NFL) and allowed just 17.8 points per game (second in NFL). The Giants defense is expected to be gray again in 2017, led by emerging superstar Landon Collins. The 23-year-old safety had five of those picks a year ago and named a first-team all-pro.
Will Dak Prescott take a step back in year two, or continue to rise? He has a tough test in Week 1, and we’ll see if he can keep an elite Giants defense at bay.
3 Derek Carr vs Marcus Mariota
Only a few years ago, the Raiders vs Titans would have been the worst matchup of Week 1. These two QB’s have changed that, leading the turnaround for their franchises. But the two have something even stranger in common.
Last year on Christmas Eve, Santa brought an awful surprise to the NFL. That day, both Carr and Mariota suffered broken fibulas, effectively ending their teams' seasons and putting these young, promising talents on a long road of recovery. Now their first game back comes against each other, and it is both a relief and exciting to see these guys take the field again.
Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota have taken the title of best young QB’s in the league. Leading both their teams to winning records in 2016 for the first time this decade, the Titans and Raiders carry high expectations into this season. Although I expect both to be elite for years to come, it will be cool to see them duke it out in Week 1. Who can shake off the rust and get the win in this interesting opener?
4 NaVorro Bowman vs Christian McCaffery
No one knows what to expect from the Niners' linebackers this year, except that they’ll be better. NaVorro Bowman’s career has turned into a series of extremely terrible events. A four-time Frist-Team All-Pro during his career, the linebacker has suffered two different, terrible, season-ending injuries.
After missing all of 2014 with a torn MCL and ACL, Bowman was able to bounce back with an all-pro year in 2015. Now he’s coming off a ruptured Achilles, and is ready to prove once again he’s still one of the best in the game. The determination alone that he’s shown during these injuries has been astounding, but if he’s able to return to form again in 2017, he could also help the 49ers' defense bounce back in a big way after being last (30.0) in points allowed last season.
His first test will be a telling one. Handling the run-heavy offense of Carolina and following the young and versatile Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield will give Bowman a chance to show us what he’s got left in the tank. He says he’s the best linebacker in the game when healthy, and now he gets his chance to go prove it.
5 Adrian Peterson vs The Vikings
This one brings so many levels of interest to the table. Adrian Peterson is the greatest running back of the 21st Century and is only two years removed from leading the league in rushing. Now he will play in Minnesota for the first time as a visitor, which will be tough not only for Peterson but also for many fans in attendance.
Not only is Peterson going up against his old team but a good run defense. Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Everson Griffen will lead a physical front seven into the home opener looking to takedown their old friend and teammate. Both parties will be coming in looking to prove the other made a mistake, which will make for a hard-hitting, and entertaining battle.
But Peterson is also facing another battle. Coming into Week 1 he has been named co-starter alongside Mark Ingram. Peterson has never had to split carries before in his career. Most likely, the majority of the touches will go to the guy with the hot hand, which means Peterson doesn’t have time to wear down the Vikings defense but needs to take it to them early. With the 32-year-old back in a new situation, can he get his legs under him and win the RB1 job, or will he be reduced to mainly the change-of-pace back this season?
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