There's a legitimate case to be made for the NFC West being the most exciting division in the NFL.

After their Super Bowl letdown, the Los Angeles Rams enter 2019 knowing they will likely face an extremely difficult fight to maintain supremacy in the division.

With the health of Todd Gurley's knee a huge question mark hanging over their season, the Rams face stiff competition from a Seattle Seahawks team that made the playoffs last season and potentially a San Francisco 49ers team set up to contend if their quarterback can stay healthy and return to his 2017 form.

Lurking as a dangerous worst-to-first contender is a Arizona Cardinals team that promises to be one of the most fascinating in the league in 2019.

After he guided them to within a win of the Lombardi Trophy, Rams quarterback Jared Goff signed a four-year extension.

"He's just getting better and better," coach Sean McVay says of Goff.

For the Rams retain the division title, they'll need that to continue to be the case.
 

Player to Watch

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers quarterback

Last year, the 49ers were expected to make the leap to playoff contention because of Garoppolo. That all went south when Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, and now he is under considerable pressure to prove he is the right man to lead the offense and deliver much-needed results for coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch in year three of their regime.

Garoppolo rebounded from a dreadful preseason performance against the Denver Broncos with a solid outing against the Kansas City Chiefs, though the concerns his performance in the first game raised will not be extinguished until he starts winning.

Niners tight end George Kittle, though, has full belief in Garoppolo. Kittle told StatsPerform: "I know for a fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is really, really good at football and I can't wait until everyone can see what he can do in a full season. He's a special player, so I'm just looking forward to being back on the field with him.

"When he came in, he played in five games and won all five. That year we were kind of banged up too, we were missing some pieces and he still led us to five wins, so I'm just looking forward to what he can do with a fully healthy roster and a whole year with coach Shanahan under his belt. I'm really looking forward to it."
 

Impact Rookie

Kyler Murray, Cardinals quarterback

Sometimes the best answer is the obvious one. That is certainly the case with Kyler Murray, the clear frontrunner to have the biggest impact of any rookie not just in the division, but in the whole NFL, too. As the Cardinals adjust to Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense, they will go as far as the dual-threat (potential) superstar can take them.

There has been so much attention on what Murray can do with his legs, but what has stood out most to his Arizona team-mates is his unerring accuracy.

"Obviously, he's a dynamic quarterback. He can change just the whole style of a team's offense when he scrambles," running back Chase Edmonds said, via ESPN. "But I think it overshadows just how accurate he truly is and just how calm he's able to stay under pressure when you look at his footwork when guys are approaching him or how he's so quickly able to just settle back and get an accurate throw going on."

If the Cardinals are to bounce back from a dismal 3-13 season and surprise those who expect another last-place finish, Murray will need to showcase that accuracy right off the bat.
 

Coach on the hot seat

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals

There is a strong argument for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan being on the hot seat after two losing seasons, but injuries likely bought him time and, given Shanahan's play-calling wisdom, general manager John Lynch would likely go before him.

Questions about Pete Carroll's longevity may come if the Seahawks struggle, but the most likely scenario is that the Cardinals' gamble on Kingsbury and his offense backfires and Arizona are forced to cut bait.

Kingsbury, for his part, is adamant his attack will not look the same as it did during his time with Texas Tech, telling The Ringer: "We won't throw it 88 times [a game] the way we did with [now-Chiefs QB] Mahomes."

However, his hiring is still one with potential for disaster, and he has a chance to be one and done should the Cardinals be as bad as they were last season - 3-13 in, ahem, Steve Wilks' one-and-done season.
 

Key Matchup

Seahawks at 49ers, Nov 11

The Niners ended a long winless run against the Seahawks in 2018 with a meaningless late-season overtime victory. This primetime clash should have a lot more riding on it, though, and if San Francisco are victorious again this time around, it will be a clear signal the Seahawks' time as a force in the West is coming to a close.
 

Predicted finish

It's an offense-dominated league in which play-callers are perhaps even more important than those executing the instructions. In that area, the Rams and 49ers have the edge over the Seahawks. A lot is dependent on Garoppolo, but the two California teams looked best placed to fight for the division, with the Seahawks looking ill-equipped to keep up with them should both the Rams and Niners offenses fire on all cylinders.

1. Rams

2. 49ers

3. Seahawks

4. Cardinals

The 2019 NFL season is a celebration of the century - and such an occasion requires lots of attention.

The league returns on Thursday as the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers renew the NFL's oldest rivalry, opening its 100th season with an NFC North showdown.

But it's just the beginning of a season with many intriguing games and narratives that are sure to follow as the New England Patriots chase a record-breaking seventh Super Bowl win, the Indianapolis Colts deal with the aftermath of Andrew Luck's retirement and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz continues a(nother) comeback campaign.

We take a look at the key storylines.

 

Will Antonio Brown's season be as turbulent as his offseason?

It seems hard to top, but the 31-year-old did lead the league in receiving touchdowns last season and has plenty of other eye-popping stats on his resume. Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers' disastrous 2018 campaign is proof that distractions can be divisive, and Brown has dealt with a number of diversions this offseason, from his frostbitten feet to his helmet holdout. Will business boom or bust in Oakland? Keep your popcorn full.

How will quarterbacks on the mend fare?

Cam Newton (shoulder) and Jimmy Garoppolo (knee), Andy Dalton (thumb) and Marcus Mariota (foot, rib, shoulder, neck, back, nerves). Need we go on? There are a number of signal-callers seeking retribution after their 2018 campaigns were interrupted or cut short due to injury. Can these prominent passers prove they still have it or will it be next man up on the depth chart?

Are the Browns contenders?

It's a legitimate question after the overhaul offseason that saw the addition of new targets for second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield in Odell Beckham Jr and Kareem Hunt - who will begin the season suspended - but like first-year coach Freddie Kitchens, the team is still young. The Cleveland Browns improved to 7-8-1 after their infamous 0-16 season in 2017, and the team's offseason acquisitions give reason to believe the long-suffering fanbase is finally in for a treat this year. The AFC North is ruthless, but this could be the year Cleveland return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

How long will Eli Manning last as the Giants' starter?

There's a reason the New York Giants drafted Daniel Jones out of Duke with the sixth overall pick in April, but how quickly will that backup plan will be put into action? While the rookie impressed in preseason, it's said the starting job will remain Eli Manning's as long as the team is in contention. But it's hard to forget the veteran's irregularity last season. Manning completed 66 per cent of his passes for 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as the Giants missed the playoffs for a second straight year. Do they have the patience for another year?

Can Le'Veon Bell stay healthy after nearly 600 days away from the game?

The star rusher has remained relatively quiet since leaving the Steelers for the New York Jets, but could it just be the calm before the storm? Le'Veon Bell does have 5,336 rushing yards, 2,660 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns through his first five NFL seasons, but practice isn't the same as in-game action - and it's been a while since he's seen any. Still, the Jets running back appears ready to let his performance this season do the talking.

How will Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury adjust with the Cardinals?

The rookie quarterback and first-year NFL coach face the tall task of turning around a team that finished with their worst record in nearly two decades as the Arizona Cardinals went 3-13 in 2018. Arizona will still need to be cautious with Kyler Murray, as the dual-sport star continues to get comfortable following his preseason inconsistencies, but Kliff Kingsbury is expected to be more aggressive. The duo should be able to shake their nerves fairly quickly.

Will the Raiders bid farewell to Oakland with a winning season?

The Raiders have had only one winning season since 2002, but they have plenty to be optimistic about after selecting four rookies in the top 40 picks of this year's Draft in addition to acquiring Brown, Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict. They could even advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, something that would certainly be a sweet send-off to Sin City ahead of the team's 2020 relocation.

Can the Steelers still thrive without the 'Killer Bs'?

Bell and Brown left Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion this offseason, leaving only Ben Roethlisberger after a turbulent 2018 season in which the Steelers finished 9-6-1 and outside the playoffs for the first time since 2013 amid myriad distractions. Now it's time for third-year stars James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to shine in their stead - if they can stay healthy. As for the team's Ryan Shazier-sized void on defense, there are high hopes first-round pick Devin Bush can bring back Blitzburgh.

How will the new pass interference rule play out?

Just don't ask a New Orleans Saints fan, because it will always be too little too late for them. Now that coaches can challenge pass interference calls and non-calls as part of the replay review system, such catastrophes like the infamous no-call in last season's NFC championship game can be avoided. But the new rule could also open a can of worms and change the strategies for using challenges in general. To see how it plays out, you'll just have to stay tuned.

Will the NFL negotiate a new CBA?

The league has been hinting that a new collective bargaining agreement could be finalized as early as September, but an ominous "work stoppage ready" plan distributed in July, urging players to be prepared for "loss of income, loss of health insurance, increased training costs and loss of camaraderie and structure", suggested otherwise. The current CBA is set to expire after the 2020 season, so the clock is ticking.

Antonio Brown is unhappy with the fines he received from the Oakland Raiders for missing mandatory team activities during the offseason. 

The Raiders wide receiver posted on his Instagram story a letter he received from general manager Mike Mayock that stated he has been fined $13,950 for missing the team's walk through on August 22.

The correspondence also said Brown was previously fined $40,000 for missing preseason training camp on August 18, and Oakland could take further action if he continues to miss mandatory team activities. 

Brown was not afraid to share his thoughts, as he wrote alongside an image of the letter: "When your own team want to hate but there's no stopping me now devil is a lie. Everyone got to pay this year so we clear."

The 31-year-old's public displeasure adds to the eventful offseason he has already had in Oakland.

The receiver started the Raiders' training camp on the non-football injury list. It was believed he was recovering from a "minor injury" he sustained after using a cryotherapy machine "without the proper footwear", resulting in frostbite.

However, it was later revealed Brown's holdout was related to a dispute with the NFL over his helmet. Brown wanted to wear his old headgear, which is no longer on the NFL's approved list, and reportedly threatened to quit if he could not. He filed two grievances against the league as he hoped to avoid wearing a new model, but he lost both hearings. 

Despite the distractions, Raiders coach Jon Gruden has insisted that Brown is "all in and ready to go."

Ezekiel Elliott has ended his holdout by signing a six-year contract worth $90million with the Dallas Cowboys.

Star running back Elliott had been holding out for a new contract for 40 days and the team confirmed on Wednesday they had reached an agreement on a deal that includes $50m guaranteed.

Elliott, who had one year left on his rookie contract as well as a fifth-year team option, is under contract with Dallas through the 2026 season.

The $15m average annual value of the deal and $50m in guaranteed money takes Elliott past the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley ($14.375m/$45m) to make him the NFL's highest-paid running back.

Elliott had been training in Mexico with Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk during his holdout, but he returned to Dallas on Tuesday and is expected to participate in practice on Wednesday.

A workhorse in the team's offense, Elliott earned his second rushing title in three years in 2018 with 1,434 yards on a league-high 304 carries with six touchdowns. He added 77 receptions for 567 yards with three scores.

The Cowboys open their 2019 campaign against the New York Giants on Sunday, and Elliott will now be available to spearhead their rushing attack.

Ezekiel Elliott has reached an agreement on a new six-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys, according to reports.

Dallas' star running back is set to sign a deal worth $90million, with $50m guaranteed.

Elliott, who had one year left on his rookie contract as well as a fifth-year team option, will now be under contract with Dallas through the 2026 season. 

Dallas had offered to make Elliott the second highest-paid running back, but he held out for the long haul as he continued to train in Mexico with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk while sitting out the preseason.

A workhorse in the team's offense, Elliott earned his second rushing title in three years with 1,434 yards on a league-high 304 carries with six touchdowns last season. He added 77 receptions for 567 yards with three scores.

The Cowboys face the New York Giants in their season opener on Sunday, and Elliott is likely now to be available to feature.

Jared Goff is staying with the Los Angeles Rams for the foreseeable future.

Los Angeles and the quarterback agreed to a four-year extension on Tuesday which will keep him with the team through the 2024 season, the team announced.

The deal could be the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history, according to NFL.com.

Rams coach Sean McVay said in June he was confident the sides would eventually come to an agreement.

"He's just getting better and better," McVay said at the time (via USA Today's Ramswire). "This offseason, he's continued to take steps, truly becoming an extension of the coaching staff and a huge part of our success as a team the last couple of years is due to his leadership and we're so thankful to have him ... it's insane to think that he's going anywhere. He's stuck with me as long as I have a say."

Goff completed 64.9 per cent of his passes and threw for 32 touchdowns, along with 12 interceptions, in 2018. He helped the Rams advance to the Super Bowl, where they fell to the New England Patriots.

"I think what's really special about him is the way that he's wired mentally," McVay said about Goff in June. "He's got elite mental toughness and extreme security in himself that doesn't ride the wave of the inevitable ups and downs that you face as a quarterback, and I think he's so authentic and genuine, his players love him."

The Rams will open the regular season against the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday.

NFL schedule-makers wasted no time getting to some of the intriguing matchups of the 2019 season, and fans deserve nothing less for the league's historic 100th year.

Are you ready for some football?

"We are thrilled to be kicking off the 100th season of football in the NFL. As a charter franchise, we cannot think of a better way to begin our centennial season by hosting our long-time rival in prime time at Soldier Field," Chicago Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said.

From a throwback Thursday rivalry opener pitting the Bears against the Green Bay Packers, to a modern-day classic featuring defending champions the New England Patriots against the Pittsburgh Steelers to kick off "Sunday Night Football," the league has more than a few treats in store for the first weekend.

But there are plenty more exciting games to look forward to down the road this season. It is 256 fixtures over 17 weeks, beginning Thursday in Chicago and ending on December 29.

Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint. With that in mind… Here are five circle-the-calendar games in 2019:

 

New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams, Week 2

Sunday, September 15

The bad blood is still brewing in New Orleans, so the NFL is getting this game out of the way early. 

It's hard to forget the infamous no-call in which officials missed Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman interfering with Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in the final minutes of last season's NFC title game. Because of the blown call, the matchup went into overtime, where the Rams kicked a field goal to win, 26-23, and punch their ticket to Super Bowl 53.

Revenge is a concept often spoken about in professional sports, but much less frequently applicable in the regular season on the pay-for-play level.

The Saints, however, undoubtedly will be out for revenge after being robbed of a shot at Tom Brady and the Patriots for the championship.

Baltimore Ravens at Seattle Seahawks, Week 7

Sunday, October 20

The last time we saw Earl Thomas in a Seahawks uniform, he was flipping the bird at his Seattle sideline while being carted off the field with a broken leg in an air cast.

Now, he is set to lead a Ravens defense in need of a voice after losing long-time franchise veterans like Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis over the years.

Baltimore are already building offensive momentum under second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and it will be interesting to see how he compares to the NFL's highest-paid player in Russell Wilson.

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers, Week 8

Sunday, October 27

Eric Reid will return to Levi's Stadium to face his former team for the first time since he signed with the Panthers last September.

The safety has stayed in the social consciousness spotlight since taking a knee in protest beside Colin Kaepernick, drawing both praise and criticism (not to mention numerous drug tests) since his return to the football field last October.

But the Niners look a little different since Reid last played with them, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is poised for a comeback season after a knee injury spoiled his first year in San Francisco. His new weapons could even help get the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, Week 14

Sunday, December 8

Settle in, because this game is guaranteed to be a treat.

The last time these teams met was the AFC championship in January, when Brady and company battled at a roaring Arrowhead Stadium for a narrow 37-31 overtime win to advance to Super Bowl LIII.

The teams had built up excitement during their high-scoring regular-season thriller last October when the they combined for 946 total yards and 30 points in the fourth quarter alone before New England sealed a 43-40 victory on a last-second field goal.

Is this Playoff Preview v.2? Maybe.

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets, Week 16

Sunday, December 22

Le'Veon Bell's departure was not quite as loud as Antonio Brown's, but the Steelers certainly suffered without their star running back, especially after fellow rusher James Conner went down with an injury late last season.

To Conner's credit, he filled in admirably for Bell during his holdout as Conner compiled a total of 1,470 yards and 13 touchdowns.

On the other hand, it was Bell's locker that got looted by his Steelers team-mates when he opted not to show up midway through last season, and he gets the penultimate week of the campaign when playoff implications could be at stake for his own shot at retribution.

At the start of every NFL season, each team have the same 0-0 record. Combined with surprise trades, NFL draftees, free agency signings, shocking retirements and injuries, September signals the start of something new for all.

It has happened time again — a dark horse seemingly comes out of nowhere and has made a deep impression on that. Remember the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals that went to the Super Bowl, but were 4-12 the year before?

What about the 2008 Miami Dolphins who made it to the playoffs, even though they won just one game in 2007? Of course, the best example is Kurt Warner and the 1999 St Louis Rams, who won the Super Bowl that year, despite being 4-12 a season earlier.

Many eyes will be focused on the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders this year, especially with the addition of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. But what other teams have the potential to go from zero to hero?

Here we break down three teams that could surprise us all during the 2019 season.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is back, Jerick McKinnon has also returned, running back Tevin Coleman now is with the team and San Francisco drafted defensive end Nick Bosa with the second overall pick. Not to mention, George Kittle might be the best tight end in the league now the Rob Gronkowski has retired.

A lot of the 49ers' problems in their shoddy 2018 season (which saw them finish 4-12) were because of injuries. Garoppolo tore his anterior cruciate ligament in week three, meaning backups C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullins had to take over for the rest of the year. McKinnon's knee gave him issues all last season and he is still recovering, but the depth with Coleman and Matt Breida gives the Niners more options.

Garoppolo struggled in his first preseason game but was able to step up and help San Francisco defeat the Kansas City Chiefs during its second preseason game. Garoppolo said playing at Arrowhead Stadium, where he tore his ACL last year, helped shake off any apprehension.

"A lot has happened in the year since then," Garoppolo said. "I thought it would be good to go back there just to remember everything that I've gone through."

On the other side of the ball, Bosa will have a helping hand from Dee Ford, who was traded from the Chiefs in the offseason after a 13-sack 2018 campaign.

As long as everyone stays healthy, the 49ers have all the pieces to at least win their division.

New York Jets

A far cry from their Super Bowl victory half a century ago, the Jets finished last season with a 4-12 record. New quarterback Sam Darnold looked like a shaky high schooler starting for the first time, the offense was sluggish and their third-down conversion rate was abysmal (32.24 per cent). 

But things have changed on the offensive side for New York. Running back Le'Veon Bell signed a four-year, $52million deal with the team and has had a quiet and drama-free offseason with the Jets. Bell also seemed to have helped Darnold gain some confidence and has heaped praise on the young quarterback.

"Sam has all the intangibles, he has the mindset. You can see him — he's a competitor. Every day in practice he literally wants to get better. It's hard to ... it's hard to describe someone that's like that because I'm like that," Bell said during the preseason.

"A lot of people go to practice and you're just practicing. They call a play and you run the play. When they call a play for me, I'm trying to work myself and I'm trying to like really get better at it. And I can see that in Sam. When he makes a throw he doesn't really like, I can see that in his face, 'I could've thrown that better.' You've got to love that about him because he literally wants to be perfect. He reminds me a lot of myself in that aspect."

Meanwhile, Ty Montgomery also was signed to a one-year $805,000 contract. Montgomery especially is intriguing, since he can take on the dual role of tailback and receiver. First-year Jets head coach Adam Gase said he was shocked Montgomery had not been claimed off waivers after the Green Bay Packers released him and envisions him being the perfect complement to Bell.

Montgomery later added that he and Bell work well together, making them an efficient and top-notch duo.

"I think we complement each other," Montgomery said. "I'm more of a receiver that's become a back and he's a back that's sort of become a receiver. Us being on the field together, we can line up anywhere. We can do anything. When he comes off, I come on. My mindset, the way I'm wired right now, nothing's going to change, nothing should change. Our offense should be just as efficient."

Indianapolis Colts

No Andrew Luck? No problem. The quarterback's surprise retirement at the age of 29 could have sent other teams into a tailspin, but the Colts have played without Luck before, although that result was not spectacular. In recent seasons, Luck has dealt with various injuries, and Jacoby Brissett has stepped up.

Colts head coach Frank Reich said Indianapolis are in "good hands" with Brissett, even though he has a 4-11 record with the team when starting. 

"You can just feel his presence in the huddle and on the field," Reich said. "The confidence that he's had, the chemistry with his receivers. We all know Andrew and T.Y. [Hilton] had a unique chemistry and connection. I can feel that developing. That's been very important that Jacoby has taken all those reps."

Brissett had been taking the majority of first-team reps during training camp and working with Hilton, Pro Bowl tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, and running back Marlon Mack, who nearly had a 1,000-yard season last year, despite missing five games. 

The stage is set for Brissett to succeed. As long as the offensive line — which includes first-round picks Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson — stays strong, Brissett and the Colts still have the chance to claim an AFC South title.

Tom Brady is sad his friend and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer is no longer with the New England Patriots. 

Reigning NFL Super Bowl champions New England released Hoyer, who quickly agreed to a three-year, $12million deal with the Indianapolis Colts.

Patriots superstar Brady was asked about the team's decision to part with the 33-year-old QB and he told The Greg Hill Show: "It's very difficult to see your friends get released, and that was really no different.

"It's part of what happens in the NFL. I will never get used to it."

Hoyer has started 37 games and thrown for 48 touchdowns, along with 30 interceptions, over his 10-year career, which includes two different stops with New England.

The Patriots, however, moved on from him and decided to make rookie Jarrett Stidham – a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft – Brady's primary backup. 

"Brian provided a lot," Brady said. "He just brought a great positive energy to the team. Always optimistic, and I think there's times for me that I get frustrated or I get down or disappointed with things that may have happened, and he would always try and bring me back to center pretty quickly.

"I love the relationship I have with him. It will certainly continue on in its own personal way. We just won’t be working together."

"I thought both Hoyer and Stidham played well in camp, and I liked both players," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters last weekend.

"But in the end, there are a number of considerations that you have to make, so we did what we thought was best for the team. I still think Brian's a good player."

The Patriots will open the regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. 

Le'Veon Bell said the Pittsburgh Steelers "had something special and they let it go" as he prepares to get his career with the New York Jets underway.

Bell left the Steelers for NFL rivals the Jets in March, signing a four-year, $52.2million contract following a contract dispute in Pittsburgh.

A three-time Pro Bowler, star running back Bell was originally selected by Pittsburgh out of Michigan State in the second round of the 2013 draft and spent his first five seasons with the team. 

Bell was asked about the situation with the Steelers and the 27-year-old told USA Today: "Even before I got to Pittsburgh, you always got to look somewhere to find that chip on your shoulder for motivation.

"So when I got to Pittsburgh, I used that from the draft. I remember all the teams that passed on me. 'I'm going to make you regret it'. Then I got to Pittsburgh and we had the whole contract thing that happened. It didn't work out in Pittsburgh.

"I'm out of Pittsburgh. And now I'm in a new city, a new team, and a lot of people haven't even given us a chance cause they don't like our roster. They think we don't have the talent.

"I'm thinking I'm going to show everybody. I'm going to show people that, look, Pittsburgh had something special and they let it go. That's what I'm going to go out there and do."

Bell rushed for 35 touchdowns during his time with the Steelers and he added: "I would do everything the same. I wouldn't change a thing."

The Jets fired former head coach Todd Bowles in late December and hired Adam Gase to replace him.

New York quarterback Sam Darnold told reporters he expects the team's offense to be "electric" this season with the additions of Bell and Gase. 

"I think we're going to do some fun things out there with all the tempo and all the different things we can do," Darnold said. "It'll be fun, it will be fun to watch us and hopefully we are going to put up a lot of points."

The Jets will open the regular season against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. 

A couple of NFL players received new contracts on Tuesday, but one notable player is still negotiating his new deal, though there is growing optimism an agreement could be reached soon.

On the other hand, another player could be coming to terms with his undisclosed absence as the regular season approaches.

 

Three things that matter

Cowboys close in on Zeke after financial pie shrinks again

The Dallas Cowboys decided to lock up La'el Collins with a five-year contract extension that will keep him on the team for the next six seasons. But that leaves less money for the Cowboys to work with when it comes to the anticipated deals for Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper.

Still, it has been reported that Elliott and his agent are flying to Dallas after training in Mexico as a "sense of urgency to finalise a deal in the next 24 hours" sinks in. It is rumoured the two sides are "very close" to an agreement that would end the running back's holdout ahead of the Cowboys' regular-season opener against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Redskins could get Williams back sooner than expected

The saga involving the offensive tackle appears to have taken a turn for the better, as retired defensive back and former Washington Redskins team-mate DeAngelo Hall said on the "Hail to the Podcast" that Trent Williams could return "sooner rather than later." Hall's comments come after he previously said there was "zero chance" Williams would show up for week one.

Williams has been away from the team since the start of training camp, though it is not exactly clear what it will take for him to return. It has been reported he had problems with how the Redskins handled his medical situation and that money could be the best way to patch things up. We will see if Williams actually makes an appearance.

Steelers may need to start former AAF player against Patriots

With Sean Davis still sidelined with an ankle injury, the Pittsburgh Steelers could be left with no choice but to start former Alliance of American Football player Kameron Kelly against Tom Brady and reigning Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots.

"We'll see," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Davis' health while speaking to reporters. "I like what I've seen from Kam Kelly. I have a great deal of confidence in him."

It is certainly not ideal. Then again, Pittsburgh are used to playing New England later in the season.

Two things that don't matter

Colts finalise extension with Brissett

With Andrew Luck gone, the Indianapolis Colts went all in on their newest starting quarterback by signing him to a contract extension. While terms were not disclosed, it was reported Jacoby Brissett's deal is worth $30million over two years with $20m guaranteed.

Luck dealt with a calf injury throughout the offseason before ultimately deciding to retire last month, allowing Brissett extra time to get in reps with the starters. We will see if the deal pays off this week.

Bengals extend Bernard for two more years

The running back reportedly secured a raise from $3.4m to $5.9m this season and the deal also includes a $600,000 bonus due in March. Giovani Bernard took on a lesser role last season as Joe Mixon developed and took over as the primary running back but was still productive as he appeared in 12 games while dealing with a knee injury.

The Cincinnati Bengals RB has averaged 4.2 yards per carry as well as 8.6 yards per reception over his six-year career.

One video you have to see

Brett Favre ventured back into enemy territory at Soldier Field as he discussed the long-time rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers with Bill Swerski's Superfans from Saturday Night Live.

Tuesday's tweet of the day

Betty White – the 97-year-old actress – promoted Thursday's Bears-Packers showdown in celebration of the NFL's 100th anniversary.

The Dallas Cowboys have locked up La'el Collins on a long-term deal, and team-mate Ezekiel Elliott could be next in line to get a bumper new contract.

Offensive tackle Collins has agreed to a five-year extension with the Cowboys, meaning he is set to remain on the team for the next six seasons.

Signed after going undrafted in 2015, the former LSU lineman started the first two years of his NFL career at left guard before switching to right tackle in 2017, taking over at the position from the retired Doug Free.

"It's good to get him agreed to for the long term," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones told 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. "I wouldn't be surprised at all [if he stays with the team], think he'll finish his career here as a Dallas Cowboy.

"I like everything about him. He's an outstanding athlete. He works hard. He has played some guard for us, but the main thing is he's a stalwart for us at tackle."

Meanwhile, media reports suggest Elliott may yet feature for Dallas in the opening week of the regular season following a breakthrough in contract negotiations.

The running back has one year left on his rookie deal, as well as a fifth-year team option. He was reportedly offered new terms that would make him the league's second-highest paid rusher.

However, having secured his second rushing title in three years with 1,434 yards on a league-high 304 carries with six touchdowns last season, Elliott opted to hold out, putting him at risk of missing games.

The Cowboys open the 2019 season against divisional rivals the New York Giants on Sunday.

A division won by the Steelers in three of the previous four years was left wide open last season as player drama boiled over in Pittsburgh.

The seemingly never-ending Le'Veon Bell saga ended up lasting the entire season, the end of which was overshadowed by receiver Antonio Brown and his apparent disconnect with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

By the offseason, the AFC North had seen one of the biggest turnovers in the league as two-thirds of the 'Killer B' trio was gone from Pittsburgh, Odell Beckham Jr joined Cleveland and Baltimore lost Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Brent Urban.

Now, the new-look AFC North appears to be up for grabs in 2019, and expectations are high in an unexpected city looking to end the league's longest active playoff drought dating back to 2002.

"This wasn't no business move," Beckham said of the New York Giants in an interview with Sports Illustrated after he was traded to Cleveland. "They thought they'd send me here to die."

But a little added star power does not mean the Browns are a guaranteed bet, especially with Earl Thomas levelling the field in Baltimore as the Ravens prepare for the post-Joe Flacco era under second-year signal-caller Lamar Jackson. It also does not hurt that he got a new weapon from the Saints in Mark Ingram.

Here is your 2019 AFC North preview.

Player to watch:

Odell Beckham Jr, Browns wide receiver

Beckham's blockbuster trade was arguably the biggest transaction of the offseason, and one of the burning questions entering the season is whether the merging of his big personality with second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield will work. The two have the potential to become a great quarterback-receiver duo because of their undeniable talent, but practice is not the same as in-game action, and challenges could arise when the regular season starts.

There is a lot of uncertainty in Cleveland as to whether this team can work together. But after being slowed down by injuries in recent years, including a hip issue during the preseason, OBJ could be poised for a breakout season, maybe cracking 1,500 yards receiving for the first time in his career.

Impact rookie:

Marquise Brown, Ravens wide receiver

In addition to Ingram, Baltimore bolstered their offense by drafting the speedy Oklahoma standout with the 25th pick. While he has not got as much work in this preseason as coach John Harbaugh would like because of offseason foot surgery, there is still reason to believe he can be a difference-maker for the offense.

"As a rookie, he hasn't had a lot of reps," Harbaugh told the team's official website. "So he'll have to get up to speed quickly. We'll have to be vigilant in what we ask him to do well - things that he can do well. It will be a challenge for them to cover him. He's really fast and he's got great hands. So that's the challenge the other way."

Brown had 75 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Sooners last season and impressed in the two preseason games he played, though he was limited to special teams duty in the final outing. Still, his explosiveness gives Harbaugh and the Ravens reason to be optimistic.

Coach under pressure:

Mike Tomlin, Steelers

Many have questioned whether Tomlin has lost control of his locker room in recent seasons. While the Rooney family does not give up on coaches easily, a change could be looming on the horizon.

Tomlin is just the third head coach hired by the Steelers since 1969 and he is among the league's longest-tenured, entering his 13th season.

His impressive resume includes a 125-66-1 record in the regular season, six division titles, eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl win.

But the Steelers have slipped into dysfunction in recent seasons after long being the league's standard for stability -10 years without a championship has to feel like a lifetime for Pittsburgh fans. Perhaps the ownership is growing impatient, too.

Key matchup:

Steelers vs. Ravens, December 29

These rivals will clash in the regular-season finale in a game that may have important playoff implications. What could be better?

The Steelers and Ravens have met 50 times, with Pittsburgh winning 28 times to Baltimore's tally of 22. But the Ravens managed to edge out the Steelers in 2018 with the superior record for the first time since 2012, which is the same season Baltimore won the Super Bowl.

While the game will likely come down to defense, it is worth noting Ben Roethlisberger is 13-8 all-time against the Ravens.

Predicted finish:

It's hard to gauge how these roster overhauls play out, but the division is trending toward looking like 2018 all over again. As the Bengals rebuild under first-year coach Zac Taylor -staying healthy would be a good start for them - expect the Browns to put up a fight for their first winning season since 2007 but fall short as they extend their postseason absence for at least another year.

1. Ravens

2. Steelers

3. Browns

4. Bengals

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs took the AFC West by storm last year.

The reigning NFL MVP had a history-making season in his first year as a starter and ended 2018 near the top of almost every statistical category after transforming the Chiefs and their offense.

Mahomes' list of accomplishments is long, but what is arguably the most impressive is how many times he was connecting with his receiving corps. He threw 50 touchdown passes - five short of Peyton Manning's single-season touchdown record — to lead the Chiefs to the AFC championship game.

But Mahomes was not the only player in Kansas City to have a breakout season. The Chiefs saw tight end Travis Kelce emerge as one of the best in his position. Then there are wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, leaving Kansas City poised to see off the Los Angeles Chargers, the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders for top spot in the division again.

"The sky is the limit for this offense," Kelce said in August. "The guys who have been here, that have been here the last couple years, especially last year; we're taking it up a level that we have in years past. You can just tell from the coaches’ excitement to their attention to detail, to how guys are reacting to their coaching. This team is going to be awesome and we're going to have a lot of fun on the offensive side of the ball."

However, the Chiefs potential 2019 run could be halted with some stiffer competition in the West.

The Chargers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and are still looking to get Hall of Fame candidate Philip Rivers to a Super Bowl, the Raiders added Antonio Brown and the Broncos have another veteran on offense in Joe Flacco. There are loaded rosters throughout the division, which could make for another exciting battle.

Player to watch 

Hunter Henry, Chargers tight end

The Chargers were without Hunter Henry last year after he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that ruined his third season in the NFL. Now, though, Henry is back and fully fit. 

He gives Rivers a reliable option after totalling 45 catches for 579 yards and four touchdowns in 2017 and 36 catches for 478 yards and eight scores during his rookie campaign in 2016.

"With Hunter Henry, we can stretch the field in the seams more," coach Anthony Lynn said during June's minicamp. "He's one of the better combo tight ends in the game because he blocks well. So just him back on the field, one of our biggest and better threats, it's going to open things up outside for Keenan Allen a little bit and Mike Williams."

Impact rookie 

Josh Jacobs, Raiders running back

Josh Jacobs was the highest-rated running back of the entire 2019 draft class and already has high expectations coming out of Alabama as the 24th overall pick. His size and power have been enough to impress quarterback Derek Carr.

"You know I've been able to hand the ball off to some really good running backs. I've played with some fun ones - Latavius [Murray], Marshawn [Lynch], Doug [Martin], and that's just the guys that've carried most of the footballs," Carr  said in mid-August. "I've played with a lot of good backs [and] watching [Jacobs'] vision was really impressive because I have the best seat in the house. I'm sitting back there playing 'Madden' tell him to cut back and trying to run for him. He's right up there with those guys."

Jacobs had four carries for 21 yards in his first - and only - preseason game.

Coach under pressure

Jon Gruden, Raiders

The coach turned analyst turned coach famously said, "If I can't get it done, I'm not going to take their money" last season after re-joining the Raiders on an eye-popping 10-year, $100million contract. Oakland went on to finish 4-12. 

Now, Gruden has some new talent and has regained his footing on the sideline. The Raiders are through the first of their rebuilding years and, with Las Vegas in the team's sights, Gruden has to try and put together a winning season if he wants to start a successful franchise in a new city in 2020.

Key matchup 

Chargers at Chiefs, December 29

This will not be the first time these two teams play. The Chargers and Chiefs will go head-to-head November 18 but the later matchup could have bigger playoff implications. Los Angeles punched their playoff ticket last season with a key win over Kansas City and this final regular-season game could again be crucial.

Predicted finish

It could be a close race to the top of the standings, but if Mahomes has a year close to last season it is hard to see any team in the division dethroning the Chiefs, who have won it for the past three years.

1. Chiefs

2. Chargers

3. Broncos

4. Raiders

The 2019 NFL Draft was dominated by talk about quarterbacks, as always. Was Kyler Murray tall enough? Did Dwayne Haskins get enough snaps in college? What on earth were the New York Giants thinking?

But this draft was about a lot more than signal-callers. While it may not have had the skill position players that drive so much conversation beyond the QBs, this was one of the deepest defensive drafts in recent memory.

The Jacksonville Jaguars got a steal in Josh Allen, as did the Buffalo Bills in Ed Oliver, but beyond some top-10 surprises, there was a lot of talent to be found later in the first round and into the second and third.

Here are five NFL rookies we will be paying close attention to at the start of the new season.

Devin Bush, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 10 overall pick

Losing Ryan Shazier in 2017 to a spine injury has been the most devastating loss the Steelers sustained in the last two seasons. In many ways, it cost the Steelers more than being without Le'Veon Bell throughout all of 2018. Pittsburgh's defense went from seventh in points allowed per game in 2017 (19.3) with Shazier to tied for 16th in 2018 (22.5), but the offense actually gained more total yards (6,453) in 2018 without Bell than it did in 2017 (6,047) with him.

Bush may not be able to immediately fill Shazier's shoes, but he has the chance to do so. He was a great linebacker at Michigan and received glowing reviews in the draft process. If Pittsburgh wins the AFC North this year, it will be due to them improving their defense more than their offense, and Bush will have a huge say in whether that happens or not.

Brian Burns, DE/OLB, Carolina Panthers, No. 16 overall pick

The key to the Panthers' success this season first and foremost is Cam Newton's health at quarterback. That cannot be overstated. But the undoubted second thing they have to make sure they do is get more of a pass rush. Carolina finished 27th in the NFL last season with 35 sacks. A pass rush will go a long way to improving the team's defense. Burns looked fantastic for the Panthers in the preseason and pass rushing is what he does. He looks like a very good pick on both talent and need.

Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs, No. 56 overall pick

The Chiefs didn't need any more weapons this season, but they got one in Hardman. Now, they have a chance to actually improve their receiving corps by giving Hardman some snaps. Sammy Watkins has never quite lived up to his draft status and while Hardman is behind the wideout on the team's depth chart, he very well could start taking plays away from the veteran.

David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears, No. 73 overall pick

With the Bears' trade of Jordan Howard, David Montgomery has a chance to be a featured back. Now, this comes with a caveat. When looking at Montgomery, it is easy to say he will get the majority of the carries for Chicago. However, as was the case with Howard last year, his workload is likely to be split with Tarik Cohen, who had 190 touches to Howard's 276 in 2018. Nevertheless, Montgomery appears highly likely to be given plenty of opportunities.

Chase Winovich, LB, New England Patriots, No. 77 overall pick

The Patriots didn't really need help on defense, but they got it. Had Winovich not been dealing with an injury in the draft process, he likely would have gone higher, but that's what happened and he fell to the third round because of it. He already was making plays in preseason and fits perfectly into the Patriots' scheme. Bill Belichick might have hit another home run here.

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