With football back in our lives again, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:
- According to my body clock, it's the 11th of June. That's when I shut down the laptop, deep-six Twitter and vanish up the Pacific Coast Highway for a week of off-the-record adventures by day and evenings spent in lamplit taverns with antiheroes of the West. In reality, it's the 2nd of September, eight days away from the Texans testing the Chiefs before a smattering of fans at Arrowhead. Someone's starting 0-1, but the Kickoff Game doubles as a win for all after months of questions about whether football -- wrapped inside a nation in search of itself -- would happen at all. Credit goes to all 32 teams that did their best to self-bubble, test regularly for Corona and get their on-field acts together in a rush. There's a sliding-doors scenario where the NFL sits in carbon freeze. If you're reading this, you've been tugged (for now) into the preferable Choose Your Own Adventure.
- The truncated lead-up to Week 1 suggests an opening act full of penalties, beguiled rookies and veteran players still grasping new schemes. We all get the premise: You'd rather be Sean Payton and Drew Brees leafing through a weather-worn Saints playbook than Baker Mayfield learning his third system in as many years. The contrast only amplifies the buzz building around first overall pick Joe Burrow. The Bengals have fallen hard for their new starting quarterback, with coach Zac Taylor saying Sunday: "He's just been impressive. He's what we expected when we took him No. 1 overall. He hasn't disappointed one day he's been out there." Burrow feels pulled from central casting. Leading-man looks, smoking cigars like an up-and-coming gangster and chosen by his teammates -- months into the job -- to speak out against racial discrimination and injustice. No disrespect to Andy Dalton, but Burrow is the tonal opposite of the Glowing Gingerman. Bengals fans have toiled in darkness for decades, but forget all that: This is the most enthralling development for the franchise since Boomer Esiason toppled Jim Kelly's Bills in the AFC title game 14,000 years ago.
- The Chiefs purchased a luxury penthouse in the WHAT'S HOT building months ago and some of the neighbors are beginning to complain about the raucous, rolling parties delving deep into the night. Artists, musicians, minxstresses and pop-culture heavyweights know it's the place to be. Presiding over the nightly scene sits Andy Reid, grilling expensive meats on the patio and cracking open beers for all his friends. Chiefs fans find themselves in heady territory, especially after the team handed out six-year extensions to Reid and general manager Brett Veach. You might question if the GM doubles as a yes man to Reid, but it was Veach who gushed over Patrick Mahomes -- with one start under his belt -- during the 2018 NFL Combine, announcing: "He's one of the best players I've ever seen." Two years later, Veach has a Super Bowl ring and a street named after him, while Ant-Man lies awake at night wondering how many more rings to come for this bubbling powerhouse?
- The Jaguars aren't hot. They aren't warm. They lurk closer to the Arctic Circle (more on that below), but Duval does a nice job heating up the competition. Minnesota landing Yannick Ngakoue for a 2021 second-rounder and conditional '22 fifth? That's one thing. The pass rusher agreeing to whittle his $17.8 million franchise-tag number into a one-year deal worth $12 million? That's something else. As Gregg Rosenthal pondered on Monday's Around the NFL Podcast, it's fair to wonder if some Vikings lackey met Ngakoue in a dark alley to gift a briefcase stuffed with the missing loot. It's a fine bit of business for the Vikings, who now pair Ngakoue's 244 career pressures and 37.5 career sacks with the crafty Danielle Hunter. The latter hasn't practiced since the middle of August, leaving some to wonder if he's unhappy with his contract, which runs through 2023. Coach Mike Zimmer said otherwise, suggesting Hunter was dealing with a "slight tweak" amid reports the team plans to have him back soon. It won't be cheap to keep both around past 2020, but Minnesota currently boasts one of the juiciest pass-rushing combos around.
- Dan Hanzus sounded the TROPE ALERT after hearing Cardinals players tout the club's "crazy fast" offense. Typically, this annual camp brag turns to dust when said team invariably hits Week 1 as a plodding disaster. Here's why this feels different: Kliff Kingsbury's attack has already shown how it feels about speed, running the league's fourth-fastest offense in 2019, per Football Outsiders. Veterans went into last season still learning the playbook and leaning on apt pupil Kyler Murray. Today, the second-year quarterback is a tantalizing fantasy target because of his next-level physical gifts and grasp of a scheme that toys with pace and no-huddle urgency to keep defenses scrambling. When it works, opposing coordinators struggle to sub in players and alter looks. Questions linger about Arizona's defense, but those defenders aren't shy about what Kingsbury has concocted, with lineman Jordan Phillips saying: "Kliff has them doing stuff that's going to give anybody problems."
- This is coming from the guy who fell hard for Seth DeValve, but I think Browns rookie tight end Harrison Bryant will be a household name before it's all said and done.
- Jaguars fans might want to skip the rest of this column, but here's one positive: Anyone drafting wideout D.J. Chark in fantasy will appear to friends and family as a raging brainiac. With Leonard Fournette out the door and Jay Gruden at the motherboard, Jacksonville appears primed to fling the ball a ton while playing from behind from wire to wire.
- It's no fun kicking an easy target when Jacksonville's Q-rating rests at the bottom of a dark lake. The split with Yannick Ngakoue became inevitable, so pulling a second- and conditional fifth-round pick from the wreckage is no fleece-job. The Jaguars, though, struggle to handle star players. Ngakoue earned a reputation for hard work and consistent production, but ultimately hit a wall with the front office. It echoes what we saw a year ago from cornerback Jalen Ramsey. While general manager David Caldwell netted a pair of firsts from the Rams for the cover man's services -- solid work -- the "culture" question lingers.
- Leonard Fournette, meanwhile, was a problem child on a team that realized you can't win titles basing your offense around a two-down thumper with attitude issues. The origin story is messy: With Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson waiting for the phone to ring, Jacksonville burned the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on BATTLESHIP FOURNETTE. Plenty of teams missed on those quarterbacks, too, but the Jags' gaffe stands out. Blame falls on ex-"football czar" Tom Coughlin, but extends to all who scouted Mahomes and Watson and came away thinking Blake Bortles -- say it with me: BLAKE BORTLES -- was the better option. These decisions changed the fate of this franchise forever.
- It's chic to explain away safeties as bordering on inessential. You don't build a defense around your backstop. Derwin James is an entirely different cat. Losing him for a second straight season in Chargers Land -- this time to a meniscus injury suffered in practice -- is akin to being stripped of your quarterback. When healthy, James is equally dominant hovering deep, squatting in the box or stationed in the slot. He boasts the speed to hang with wideouts one-on-one and the might to neutralize tight ends and doomed runners. The Chargers have lost a player with no replacement. After building their entire game plan around James in a head-turning playoff win over the Ravens two winters ago, Los Angeles crumbled to 5-11 without James for most of last season. Here we are again, dipped into early misfortune for a Bolts squad that feels more at home in a Black Mirror episode than before the fawning cameras of Hard Knocks.