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2017 NFL season: Eleven figures facing sky-high expectations

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The 2017 NFL season is finally about to kick off. Before this year's expectations crash into the reality of actual football action, I thought I'd consider which players and coaches are facing the highest expectations heading into the season. Below, I've listed 11 such figures, along with an assessment of each person's ability to meet these soaring expectations.

1) Bill Belichick, head coach, New England Patriots

Expectations don't get much higher than talk of going 16-0. Belichick himself might be predictably unimpressed by the hype. But when you consider all the offseason additions the reigning Super Bowl champs made, including Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, this is arguably the best and deepest team Belichick has ever fielded, even with Julian Edelman on the shelf. I personally don't think 16-0 is in the cards, but I do think 15-1 is easily within reach, despite a slightly tougher schedule than last season and the rise of the Dolphins in Miami.

2) Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

The reigning MVP returns with all the key figures from the Falcons' massively successful 2016 season -- except for offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan. Now the pressure is on Ryan to both shake off the epic Super Bowl LI loss and show he can produce at an elite level without Shanahan's guiding hand. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is good at what he does, and, of course, coach Dan Quinn is also there to help prevent a drop-off. It would be a boon if Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper could take a step forward in 2017, but I think Ryan's demeanor will make the ultimate difference. By Week 4, we'll see that Ryan and the Falcons are operating at the same explosive clip they did last year, and I could see this team going back to the Super Bowl.

3) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

It's easy to automatically mark Brady down for yet another Pro Bowl-caliber season, but let's not forget that he's in uncharted territory. He's a 40-year-old quarterback who is being widely expected to play at a level no 40-year-old quarterback ever has. If he merely repeats his 2016 play (296.2 yards per game, 28 touchdowns, two picks, 112.2 passer rating in 12 games) in 2017, he'll soar past what Brett Favre -- the current leader in passing yards among QBs 40 or older -- did in 2009 (4,202 yards, 33 TDs, seven picks, 107.2 passer rating). Of course, the wild thing is, these expectations are completely reasonable. Because of Brady's diet and the way he takes care of his body, when you see him and how he moves, it's like he's 40 going on 27. In that way, he reminds me of Roger Staubach as he got older. I think Brady will keep pushing the envelope and reaching new heights for his age.

4) David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Johnson will be asked to carry a heavy offensive burden, with quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Larry Fitzgerald both in their twilight years. He's also vowed to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, something only Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig have done before him -- raising expectations sky high. But I'm confident he'll meet said expectations. He's special, with the ability to be a stud running inside, outside or catching passes out of the backfield. Moving Jared Veldheer to right tackle and D.J. Humphries to left tackle will only help Johnson.

5) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

The Texans' defense was dominant with Watt hurt for most of 2016 -- so logic holds that his return to health in 2017 will make this unit, which has ranked seventh or better in five of the last six years, even more formidable than usual, right? This line of thinking puts a ton on Watt's surgically-repaired back, with the 28-year-old three-time Defensive Player of the Year yet to be tested in meaningful on-field action. But I think he'll come through and push Houston to new defensive heights, thanks to the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney and continued strong performance of Whitney Mercilus. In fact, the attention Clowney will demand from opponents will make Watt as dangerous as he's ever been.

6) Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Winston made incremental gains in production from his rookie season to 2016, but with the additions of receiver DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard to an offense already boasting Mike Evans, Doug Martin and Cameron Brate, people are buzzing about the Bucs' potential in 2017. And I think the moves will allow the quarterback to take a huge step forward in Year 3. Coach Dirk Koetter loves to throw to the tight end, which makes the first-round selection of Howard -- and 2016 emergence of Brate -- particularly encouraging for Winston. He has a chance to reach the 4,500-yard mark and nudge his completion rate further north of 60 percent.

7) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Plenty is riding on the Panthers rookie, around whom the hype has only grown since he was drafted eighth overall. Will he be the versatile force in Carolina many are expecting him to be? If 2,500 all-purpose yards and a strong push for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors fit the bill, then yes. McCaffrey will line up all over the field, and is poised to make an immediate impact as a rusher and receiver. He possesses strength and all kinds of athletic ability. Capable of running inside, outside or lining up as a receiver, he'll open things up for quarterback Cam Newton.

8) Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

People seem to sort of take Roethlisberger for granted. But this Steelers offense is loaded, with Martavis Bryant rejoining Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Adding rookie running back James Conner will help buttress the team against any potential injuries to Bell. With Big Ben operating with this stacked offense in what could be one of his final NFL seasons, will the 35-year-old QB be able to realize all that potential and collect his third Super Bowl trophy? I see Pittsburgh falling to the Patriots in the AFC title game again, but think Roethlisberger is going to have a stellar season, and the opportunity is certainly there to win it all.

9) Anthony Lynn, head coach, Los Angeles Chargers

I've known Lynn since he was a running back at Texas Tech. I was very impressed by what I saw when I visited Chargers camp this summer -- things were very well organized. Obviously, with the team moving into the high-profile Los Angeles market and a bandbox stadium that should foster an enthusiastic home environment, the Bolts will be in the spotlight. With talented players like Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen on offense and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on defense, Lynn has the tools to win -- and that's what I think he'll do. Changing the offseason workout program in an effort to reduce injuries should hopefully help the team avoid the injury bug that's so devastated it in recent years (though injuries to Mike Williams, Forrest Lamp and Denzel Perryman are understandably concerning).

10) Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders

If the Raiders are going to be successful, they need to control the time of possession, and that's where Lynch comes in -- he's that big running back who converts third downs and keeps the clock running. It's true that he hasn't been in real game action since 2015, when he gained just 3.8 yards per carry in seven outings. But I think being off for the 2016 season will help the 31-year-old veteran stay fresh this year. When the Raiders played in Dallas this preseason, he carried the ball twice and looked pretty good. I think we'll see him return to the level he played at in 2013 and '14, especially running behind this Oakland offensive line, which is nearly as good as the Cowboys'.

11) Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins

Ajayi recovered from a rough and slightly turbulent start to 2016 to post some strong numbers, including a trio of 200-yard games, while helping the Dolphins reach the playoffs. It's crucial to Miami's season that Ajayi be able to replicate that success in Year 3 -- and I think he will. Ajayi has great running ability. He sees the opening and knows how to cut. There's no question in my mind that if he stays healthy (and, it should be noted, doubts about his longevity were what helped depress his draft stock in 2015), Ajayi will have an even better year than he did in 2016.

Also considered: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys; Dan Quinn, head coach, Atlanta Falcons; Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs; Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders; Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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