The pre-season officially kicks off tonight – after the turf snafu led to the cancellation of the Hall of Fame game – and there are plenty of players with dreams of division titles and Super Bowl berths dancing in their heads. There are others entering this season with a lot to prove – either to themselves, fans, or the people cutting them massive checks.
We start off the series with the most important position in the NFL, the quarterbacks.
Matthew Stafford- Detroit Lions:
His security blanket Calvin “Megatron” Johnson decided to hang it up prematurely and now the eight-year vet out of Georgia must prove to Lions fans and the rest of the league that he can still get the job done without the 6’5 target. No one will ever mistake the Lions signal-caller for being an elite NFL quarterback, but Stafford has shown glimpses of being able to lead the Lions further than they have been in years. He has the support of his team, cleaned up his turnover issue under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter — he had 11 interceptions the first eight games of the season but only had two in the final eight. But until he wins in the playoffs he will always have his doubters. Unfortunately for him, that list has grown even longer with the changes to the offensive personnel as there are those who think he is mediocre and will never get it done when it matters.
Marcus Mariota- Tennessee Titans:
The second-year man out of Oregon started his rookie season on fire with the season-opening victory over Tampa Bay in 2015. Beyond that, it was a bittersweet season for the Heisman winner as he had his good moments (2,818 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions), but the team struggled everywhere else. There was inconsistency at the running back position; leading rusher Antonio Andrews only had 525 rushing yards and a paltry 3.6 ypc average. He had no protection from his offensive line – the unit surrendered a league-leading 54 sacks. And he had no one to throw the ball to at wide receiver – Harry Douglas led all wideouts with only 36 receptions. The team addressed many of its issues in the offseason with the addition of running backs Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry, tackle Jack Conklin and receiver Andre Johnson and it will be interesting to see how Mariota responds to his new toys – that’s if he can stay healthy.
Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay Packers:
It’s hard to believe that a quarterback who passed for 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions would have a lot to prove, but Rodgers isn’t your typical NFL quarterback. Those numbers were the only positives in what many would consider a down year for the 12-year veteran (lowest completion percentage of his starting career, a sub 100 QB-rating, and a 6.7 yard-per-attempt average). Despite his success and being considered the best quarterback in the NFL by some, Rodgers only has one Super Bowl appearance to show for his greatness. Father time waits for no one and while Rodgers still has at least three to five very good years remaining, you have to wonder how much longer will that championship window remain open for the Green Bay Packers.
Kirk Cousins- Washington Redskins:
The Washington Redskins showed the fifth-year vet the money in the off-season – a one-year $20 million franchise tender—and now it’s time for the former MSU Spartan to show that he is worth a long-term deal in the nation’s capital. Cousins exceeded expectations for Redskins fans who were bitter from the RG3 fallout by passing for 4,166 yards 29 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions and leading the team to an NFC East Division Championship and a playoff berth. But is he the long-term answer? Contract years tend to be motivating factors for athletes, so Cousins has to avoid becoming intoxicated off last season’s success. He doesn’t have much time to rest on his laurels as Washington will face six teams that made the playoffs in 2015 in addition to playing much improved divisional foes Dallas and New York twice.