PFW's Top 10 storylines of the 2017 NFL season

Can anyone stop the Patriots from repeating as Super Bowl champs?

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) listens to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, middle, and head coach Bill Belichick during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) — Elise Amendola

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After pulling off the most dramatic Super Bowl comeback ever, Bill Belichick's Patriots orchestrated perhaps the most aggressive and unorthodox offseason we've seen by a defending Super Bowl champion. Largely eschewing the typical growing pains that accompany replenishing via the draft —New England's four-man class is the smallest by a reigning champ in the common Draft era—he used unrestricted free agency (CB Stephon Gilmore), restricted free agency (RB Mike Gillislee) and, most notably, the trade market (WR Brandin Cooks, DE Kony Ealy, TEs Dwayne Allen and James O'Shaughnessy) to buoy Tom Brady, 40 and seemingly still improving, and his constantly evolving roster.

Indeed, Belichick essentially made every trade but the one we all expected — backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Brady told owner Robert Kraft he plans to play six or seven more years. Meantime, Belichick geared up for their 18th season together like it's their last.


Only twice in Super Bowl history has the previous year's loser held a parade after the next season — and neither the 1971 Cowboys, '72 Dolphins, nor arguably any other club, suffered a loss nearly as stunning as squandering a 28-3 lead midway through the third quarter. Coach Dan Quinn's Falcons have a lot going for them, including the return of reigning MVP Matt Ryan and the most prolific offense since "The Greatest Show on Turf." Quinn's 'D,' after getting the most mileage from its rookie class of any club in nearly four decades, clearly is talented and ascending, and may have added the missing piece in fiery first-round pass rusher Takk McKinley.

Yet, Ryan's offense lost Assistant Coach of the Year, now-49ers boss Kyle Shanahan, and Atlanta fired defensive coordinator Richard Smith. One more minor change: the Falcons are cutting the ribbon on their brand new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. So much for continuity.


Just 12 miles separates the Los Angeles Coliseum, temporary home of the relocated Rams, and 30,000-seat StubHub Center, where the Chargers will call home before co-tenanting in Rams owner Stan Kroenke's Inglewood palace, set to open in 2020.

A pair of rookie head coaches — the Rams' Sean McVay, at 31 the youngest in NFL history; and the Bolts' Anthony Lynn, a longtime running backs coach who parlayed a season as coordinator into his new post — take over last-place clubs vying for the loyalty of Los Angelenos, who've historically failed to support one NFL franchise, much less two. The Chargers appear closer to competing, with Philip Rivers finally getting the support he needs this offseason and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa catalyzing a sneakily talented 'D.' Kroenke took a critical step toward increasing the Rams' credibility by firing Jeff Fisher. McVay tabbed renowned defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, nearly four decades the head coach's senior, and he brings a wealth of knowledge and inherits Aaron Donald and a destructive front seven potentially portending another swift turnaround.

Then there are the Raiders, set to abandon Oakland for Las Vegas — but not until 2019. Will their old fans turn out to watch a potential Super Bowl contender? Will McVay and Lynn succeed in their quest to re-brand and rebuild simultaneously?


2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Ezekiel Elliott, selected fourth overall, led the NFL in rushing as a rookie. No. 2 on the list? Fellow 2016 rookie Jordan Howard, plucked by Chicago 146 picks, and nine backs, later. Fast-forward a year. The Jaguars and Panthers made Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey the fourth and eighth overall picks, respectively — equaling the total of top-10 backs in the past four drafts combined.

The Raiders lured Marshawn Lynch from retirement, while New Orleans guaranteed Adrian Peterson, the NFL's second-active leading rusher and future first ballot Hall of Famer, $3.5 million after Minnesota declined his option. The Saints also have former first-rounder Mark Ingram, coming off his finest season, and sent a 2018 second-rounder to the Niners to move up nine spots for Alvin Kamara. The Vikings signed Latavius Murray (3 years, $15 million) to replace Adrian Peterson then spent a second-rounder to end first-round talent Dalvin Cook's slide. Is the RB position really devalued? Depends which team you ask. Is it as important as ever? No question.


Adding another character risk, second-round RB Joe Mixon, doesn't figure to buy additional time for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. The NFL's second-longest tenured coach, and No. 1 on our offseason coaching bubble list, is coming off a 6-9-1 campaign, Cincinnati's first season since 2010 missing the playoffs, where Lewis is 0-7 as a head coach. Lewis didn't get his annual one-year extension; he's officially a lame duck.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano and rookie GM Chris Ballard have an arranged marriage — for now. Even amid a rebuild, with franchise passer Andrew Luck and an annually disappointing 'D' that received a serious talent influx, Pagano may not be able to afford a third straight postseason no-show.

Chicago's John Fox, 9-27 through two seasons, just saw his young and emboldened GM Ryan Pace punt on 2017. Pace traded up for the No. 2 overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, who's due for a redshirt year behind $18.5 million bridge builder Mike Glennon.

Todd Bowles' job security beyond 2017 could be tied to a Jets QB room anchored by Josh McCown and Christian Hackenberg.


We couldn't be more impressed with the offseasons of Cleveland and San Francisco, but which last-place clubs with fewer holes to fill did the best work closing their divisional gaps? Remember, the rise of a bottom dweller is practically an annual occurrence in the NFL. How about Philadelphia and Carolina, both taking a page from the Bill Polian handbook of surrounding their franchise passers with talented targets. Carson Wentz received two big-play free-agent WRs, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, and a trio of explosive mid-rounders to open up the offense, allowing Howie Roseman to spend his biggest draft resources to restock the defense.

The Panthers' stop-unit started regaining its dominance after a tough opening to its 2015 conference title defense. Thus, David Gettleman invested early in two of the more dangerous space players in the draft, McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, for Cam Newton, whose efficiency, and durability, spiraled following his MVP 2015 campaign.