For the first time in over seven months, all 32 teams will take to the field this week for game action.
The winding, lost pocket of time in between -- a tricky beast known as the offseason -- has delivered its share of whispers, suggestions and storylines.
Some offseason narratives provide genuine clues about where teams hope to be come September, while other news nuggets amount to nothing more than misdirecting wind.
Scanning this stack of storylines, here's what I'm buying -- and definitely NOT buying -- as we head into Week 1 of the preseason:
Don't talk to me about rookie quarterbacks thriving in the quiet months before real games begin. We need to see these newbies stand in the pocket and make plays against violent opposing defenses before we blindly join the hype parade. Running backs are a different story, though, with reports of explosive speed and lateral ability often translating from practice to the real deal.
McCaffrey, Carolina's first-round runner, was touted last month by teammate Jonathan Stewart as looking "pretty unstoppable" catching passes out of the backfield, a role he plans to see plenty of in 2017, with Stewart adding: "I can tell you now there's not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him 1-on-1." Drawing "oohs and ahs from fans," McCaffrey put on a show last week against Luke Kuechly, bobbing and weaving against the grain and forcing the All-Pro linebacker into multiple missed tackles:
The table is set for McCaffrey to play a scenery-shifting role on offense from Week 1 onward as an oft-targeted pass catcher on screens and quick zips into space aimed at setting the former Stanford star free. Young backs don't need years to mature -- not like most quarterbacks -- making McCaffrey a player I'm trusting to produce and dazzle fans from the first snap.
'Fins fine with Jay Cutler
Instead, Cutler's return from a never-begun broadcasting gig gives the Dolphins an equal chance to return to the playoffs. We all know Cutler played well under Gase with the Bears in 2015, managing the best passer rating and touchdown-to-pick ratio of his career. Miami offers a welcome situation for the back-from-retirement signal caller, fielding a run-first attack that will ask Cutler to do less. When it's time to sling the ball, though, Miami owns a talented arsenal of targets in tight end Julius Thomas and the promising wideout trio of DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills.
Bolts still a threat in the AFC West
The last few weeks have blossomed into a dark-arts nightmare for the seemingly hexed Chargers. First you lose seventh overall pick Mike Williams to a lingering back injury that could possibly wipe out his entire rookie season. Then second-round guard Forrest Lamp goes down with a campaign-ending ACL tear. Removing Williams from one of the AFC's deepest cadre of wideouts is one thing, but Lamp was plugged in as the team's starter on the right side of a line that has struggled for eons to find stability.
Still, this club finished ninth in points scored last season with a laundry list of injuries that surpassed any other team league-wide. The line must find a way to move forward, but you still have a top-five quarterback in Philip Rivers, a stocked shelf of pass catchers, a proven ground threat in Melvin Gordon and a juicy tight end combo in Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates. No time to jump ship on a team that could easily go 10-6.
It boils down to who's talking. I wouldn't buy a word of this from Jeff Fisher, the exiled ex-coach who kept his offense in neutral-or-worse during his entire wayward campaign with the Rams. McVay, though, has a track record of flipping the switch on offense and certainly made Gurley's trajectory a core part of his offseason planning. After Gurley's yards-per-carry mark spiraled from 4.8 as a rookie to 3.2 last year, we need to recognize what happened: Opponents rightly uncowed by Case Keenum and a lost-at-the-wheel Jared Goff stacked the box and zeroed in on L.A.'s featured back behind a leaky offensive line. Gurley pranced into unforgiving walls of defenders expecting him -- every time.
McVay and the front office addressed this by replacing draft bust Greg Robinson with three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and adding John Sullivan, the veteran center hoping to start again after two injury-plagued seasons. Sullivan was a standout at the position for Minnesota up until 2015. If McVay can solidify the front five and create more balance with the passing game, Gurley -- whose physical talents were never the issue -- should be in for a bounceback season in La La Land.
NOT BUYING IT
What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, the play of rookie signal caller DeShone Kizer had Browns fans wondering if they might finally have unearthed a quarterback of note for the first time since the mid-'90s. That buzz quieted with the release of Cleveland's depth chart for Thursday's preseason opener with the Saints.
Instead of starting Kizer -- who struggled in last week's intrasquad scrimmage -- the Browns will roll out Brock Osweiler, the gangly, tall-as-tree quarterback who many believed wouldn't even be on the roster in early August. The move means nothing to me -- not yet -- until we see what Osweiler pulls off against live competition. Cody Kessler and Kizer have an equal shot to blow this pecking order into smithereens based on how they play over the next few weeks.
Even in that Friday scrimmage, Osweiler displayed moments of awkward footwork and less-than-stellar throwing mechanics. This isn't what the Browns want to hear, but it feels like another season where all three men could see regular-season snaps for a team still very much in play to find its quarterback in next year's draft. Who opens Week 1, though, will be decided starting Thursday night.
These are the words of Rex Ryan, Buffalo's dispatched coach who now plans to make subsequent radioactive comments for ESPN. Ryan went on to posit: "Could they be a playoff team? They might very well be."
Often wed to hyperbole, Ryan shouldn't overlook his own role in this. While the Bills have areas of talent, they're starting over -- again -- with a new coach, fresh front office and a bushel of new players. The hope is that constant change under ownership will end with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, the first coach-general manager pairing in Buffalo that feels organic in many, many years.
As for Rex predicting playoff appearances for other teams -- well, he couldn't manage that for his own team.
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht floated this gem last week to prod "one of those guys that needs a carrot" dangled in front of his face. Set to return in Week 4 from a suspension that dates back to last season, Martin has served as a hot-and-cold runner who dominated defenses in 2012 and 2015, only to struggle with injuries and off-the-field issues during his three other NFL campaigns.
This offseason, though, Licht himself has gushed over Martin's on-field work -- "He looks lean, he looks like he's finishing his runs," the GM said, before adding, "He looks like the Doug Martin of 2015" -- meaning that Tampa's choice is easy if he resembles that player upon his return.
Martin and Charles Sims were the NFC's most dominant tandem of backs for long stretches of 2015. Sims still holds third-down duties, but I'm not buying the idea that Martin will ride the pine while Jacquizz Rodgers, Peyton Barber and Jeremy McNichols lead the way on early downs. For a club with playoff aspirations -- a rarity in Tampa -- Martin will start immediately barring something unforeseen between now and October.
"People make all these predictions and stuff, and things go the opposite way," New York's running back said in July. "Like everybody's saying with tanking and that stuff. We don't care what anybody else says, it's about us."
On one hand, I believe what Forte believes: Jets players -- and NFL players, in general -- are not out to toss games. Same goes for the coaches. To suggest, however, that Gang Green's front office went out of its way to put the best possible roster on the field? Not in a million years will you sell a thinking person on that bag of fibs.
After parting ways with streams of veterans, the Jets put themselves in a position to have Robby Anderson operate as the team's top wideout following the season-ending loss of Quincy Enunwa. There isn't a single, sexy, likeable aspect to this roster beyond the defensive line, meaning long-suffering Jets fans better prepare for the ugliest season of their lives. The table has been set.
Here's the bright spot: The Jets are going to look like master planners if they wind up grabbing a franchise quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. That's been the missing ingredient forever in Florham Park, giving some purpose to a cap-clearing, start-from-scratch approach. I'd be fine with the Jets honestly floating this as their plan, but they won't, meaning we're forced to read inane retorts from players about how the team is all in. Please.