The 2015 NFL campaign is going to be highly compelling, loaded with sizzling storylines. But which individual players drum up the most interest heading toward the season?
Glad you (I) asked.
Here are the most fascinating NFL players of 2015, Schein Nine style:
1) DeMarco Murray, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
For so many reasons, Murray tops the charts for me.
First of all, I think Dallas made a major miscalculation in letting the reigning rushing king and Offensive Player of the Year walk in free agency. The Cowboys didn't want to overpay a running back, essentially banking on the assumption that anyone can put up stats behind the best offensive line in football.
So the onus is on Murray to prove Dallas wrong and make Chip Kelly out to be a genius. And I'd have a difficult time betting against the 27-year-old back.
I believe Kelly was brilliant in dealing LeSean McCoy for linebacker Kiko Alonso and then signing Murray to replace the fan favorite in the backfield. This made Philadelphia better in two areas. Murray is a superior, more physical runner than McCoy, and his north-south, one-cut style is a more ideal fit in Kelly's offense. And Alonso significantly upgrades the linebacking corps. Just ask inside linebackers coach Rick Minter.
"He's going to be a big help for us," Minter said in March, per PhiladelphiaEagles.com. "He does all the things that we want our linebackers to do. He's big, he's tall and he moves side to side and attacks the football. He's really the prototype of what we're looking for inside."
But of course, Eagles fans will not be patient with Murray, after Kelly's reshaping of the roster (and jettisoning of Pennsylvania kid McCoy). So the new bell-cow back had better get off to a nice start in 2015.
One thing that really worries me about this offense (and team as a whole) is the quarterback situation, with a depth chart that includes oft-injured and invisible Sam Bradford, Mark "Mr. Buttfumble" Sanchez and the polarizing one, Tim Tebow. I want to believe Kelly's offense will be potent as usual, but the QB position is questionable -- at best. I loved what Kelly did this offseason except at the QB spot. That's kind of a big deal. And that uncertainty puts even more pressure on Murray to carry the offense.
I'm so interested to see how this plays out in Philly -- and Dallas, for that matter.
2) Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
I operate under the assumption that 2015 is the last season for the legendary signal-caller. And I can't wait to see what's in store.
It was crystal clear Manning wasn't healthy at the end of last season, and thus, wasn't the same player. But let's not forget that he still finished second in touchdown passes (39), as well as fourth in yards (4,727) and passer rating (101.5). The vast majority of NFL teams would kill for that kind of production behind center.
Peyton appeared to toy with retirement before giving it another go. You know the prideful Manning doesn't want to resemble Willie Mays stumbling around the outfield for the Mets at the end of his career. But now he's in a new offense under Gary Kubiak and the offensive line is in complete disarray, with uncertainty at four of the five slots up front. Not to mention, he lost playmaking tight end Julius Thomas -- he of the 24 touchdown grabs over the past two seasons -- and superstar receiver Demaryius Thomas has been absent from offseason workouts due to a contract dispute.
3) Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Talking to this Manning in studio last Friday on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," I was struck by the fact that Eli was cool as a cucumber in talking about his contract situation. As I told him then, I find it remarkable that someone of his stature could be so even about entering 2015 sans an extension, making this a contract year. But Eli doesn't let anything faze him, cares deeply about winning and trusts everything will work out with the Giants going forward. There are no complaints, no concerns about getting injured in a physical sport. I find that fascinating.
And then there's Manning on the field.
Entering Year 2 in Ben McAdoo's offense, Eli should be comfortable with the attack. He certainly seemed to settle in down the stretch last season, throwing 12 touchdown passes against just three interceptions over the final six weeks. But the Giants' offensive line has questions. So does the defense. Will Big Blue routinely be playing from behind, forcing Manning to throw more than he should and try to do too much? Will Eli's propensity to throw interceptions in bunches become an issue again?
In theory, the Giants' passing attack should explode this year. Victor Cruz is confident he'll be ready to rock by training camp. That's a big deal. Odell Beckham Jr. needs to cut out the diva act (you can't blow off the media on the final day of minicamp), stay healthy and continue his rise to superstardom. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, he's one of the nine most indispensable offensive players in the NFL. If healthy and focused, he's a megastar. His legendary rookie year wasn't a fluke.
Can Eli, in the last year of his current deal, drive this ship back into the playoffs?
4) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
I penned a column earlier this month about the Vikes being a surprise playoff team, largely because Peterson's back in the fold. At his press conference upon returning to work, Peterson said all the right things about what he learned after missing the final 15 games of 2014 following his indictment for reckless or negligent injury to a child. He seems genuine when he talks about becoming a better parent in the wake of everything.
I expect Peterson to put together an MVP-caliber season in 2015. After what was essentially a year off, those legs are fresh -- and the sky's the limit for this generational talent.
5) Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
Color me fascinated. Clowney's just so naturally gifted. But after years of breathless hype from football analysts far and wide, he managed to log just four games in an injury-riddled rookie campaign, recording seven tackles and zero sacks. Then in December, he underwent microfracture knee surgery -- a serious procedure, to say the least.
Houston Chronicle scribe John McClain reports that Clowney is quickly progressing in his recovery from the surgery, and that the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft plans to return for the start of training camp. That would be massive. The thought of Clowney and J.J. Watt teaming up to terrorize opposing quarterbacks is a frightening one for offensive coordinators across the league -- if, of course, Clowney can regain the explosiveness that made him one of the most celebrated prospects to enter the NFL in years. And that's the question: Can he return to form, stay healthy and live up to his immense potential?
6) Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks
Jimmy Graham, Seahawks tight end -- I check myself every single time I write or say that. Seattle clearly has been one of football's most captivating teams in recent years -- and then the 'Hawks went out and added one of the NFL's most prominent mismatch nightmares. Splendid.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are at a contract impasse, but the quarterback is certainly thrilled with this offseason gift from general manager John Schneider. Graham was brought in to give Wilson the weapon he has lacked in the passing attack. I'm obsessed with how perfect the fit is.
That said, Pete Carroll's Seahawks have always been a team built on defense and running the football. How will Graham's presence alter their approach? I personally think this will work out quite well, but there are skeptics. We'll see in the fall.
7) Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams
I loved St. Louis drafting the Georgia star with the 10th overall pick. Gurley is a spellbinding talent, though his torn ACL gave some teams pause.
On Wednesday, Gurley told NFL Media's Tiffany Blackmon that he's aiming to return to the field for training camp next month. Boy, would that be encouraging. I'm intrigued to see how quickly the Rams throw him into the fire -- and how effective he can be less than a year removed from major surgery. How will St. Louis balance patience with the drive to win?
8) Jimmy Smith, CB, Baltimore Ravens
There might not be a more important player in the AFC this year.
Armed with a new four-year, $48 million deal, Smith is the best player at the biggest area of concern for the Ravens. The secondary is the only thing that really gives me pause when it comes to declaring Baltimore a legit Super Bowl contender.
Smith needs to stay healthy and deliver on his promise as a top-notch cover man. The Super Bowl XLVII hero has proven to be a legit corner, but can he take his game to the next level? He's everything to the 2015 Ravens.
9) Andre Johnson, WR, Indianapolis Colts
It's weird to see him out of a Texans uniform. It'll be fascinating to see what he has left in the tank.
The borderline Hall of Famer should enjoy a renaissance season with Andrew Luck throwing him the football. And this could sew up his Canton credentials.