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Who matters most in Week 1: Sam Darnold opens new Jets era

The offseason journey is behind us at last.

After long months of focus on roster shuffling, rookie additions, new coaches, altered schemes and hope-filled hyperbole, we have arrived.

Thursday's clash between the Eagles and Falcons kicked off a campaign sure to bring new personalities, unexpected narratives and dreams come true for one championship squad.

With the regular season finally underway, here's my laundry list of who matters most in the remaining 15 games of Week 1:

Browns defensive whirlwind Myles Garrett: For two decades, Browns fans have been subject to a vicious joke played on loop: Build up hopes and dreams from March through August, only to drop everyone off a sharp cliff into the bone-black darkness come September.

Since the Browns returned to the league in 1999, the Steelers have piled up an unruly 32-6 mark against their onetime rivals. During that era of ineptitude for Cleveland, Ben Roethlisberger is 21-2 against a Browns outfit that refuses to crack the code.

We've heard it all summer and seen evidence on HBO's "Hard Knocks": These Browns are different, with more talent and veteran leadership than ever before during their ill reboot.

For any of this to stick, it's critical for Garrett to magnify a new reality out of the gate. Cleveland's second-year pass rusher was a dominant force during the preseason. Off the field, we saw him slip a photo of Big Ben through a paper shredder during the team's playful remake of "The Office."

Carving up Roethlisberger in real life has been another chore altogether for these long-lost Browns. It's up to Garrett to flip the script come Week 1.

Saints Mr. Everything Alvin Kamara: Ultimately, Mark Ingram's four-game suspension could wind up as a blessing in disguise for the Saints. It doesn't hurt to insert your hammer-dropping veteran runner into the lineup with fresh legs come Week 5.

Until Ingram returns, last year's record-setting backfield hinges entirely on the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. There's no understating Kamara's importance to this scheme both as a tougher-than-advertised, slashing runner and a pass-catching wonder in open space.

Kamara is set for a massive workload -- with a sprinkling of recent signee Mike Gillislee -- as coach Sean Payton looks to continue last year's balanced attack that served quarterback Drew Brees so well from wire-to-wire.

You can't ask this backfield to duplicate 2017, but here's a concerning truth for NFC opponents: Kamara is just getting started. Tampa's refurbished defense will be tested right away.

Rookie dream-caster Sam Darnold:Jets fans have been through waves of generational madness and disappointment, but that badgered crew has fallen hard for its 21-year-old arm of tomorrow -- and today.

Darnold did everything the Jets asked him to do during the preseason, earning the starting nod come Monday night against Detroit. I can't help but think back upon Peyton Manning's rookie campaign with the Colts in 1998. He wasn't perfect -- and that team was junk -- but you saw the makings of an under-center force of nature.

Monday night's victor aside, Darnold's first start comes imbued with deeper meaning: The hopeful beginning of New York's journey out of hell after decades of watching everyone else unearth quarterbacks, win Super Bowls and find happiness on Sundays. It's past due for Gang Green supporters to feel the same.

Rams wunderkind coach Sean McVay: The NFL strives to douse Week 1 with narrative-driven tilts that pit heroes, anti-heroes and betrayers against each other off the bat. Grudge matches get eyeballs.

That said, no such bad blood exists between McVay and Oakland's Jon Gruden. Instead, the raved-about, second-year Los Angeles coach considers his Week 1 foe a friend and mentor who left his mark -- enough for Rams COO Kevin Demoff to say of McVay: "There are times when I close my eyes, you hear Jon Gruden -- whether it's the cadence, whether it's the hand movement."

After last year's breakout campaign, McVay continues to turn heads as one of the game's rare-minded young thinkers. It's everything from the pre-snap communication with quarterback Jared Goff to the way the 32-year-old coach uses his receivers to pull defenders away from the formation to free up star runner Todd Gurley.

It goes beyond the play-calling, though, as McVay turned heads by refusing to play most of his stars in the preseason. Unafraid to cut against the grain, his treatment of August football was one of the more enticing discussion points of the summer. If the Rams hit the ground running, it could help change the way NFL heavies think about exhibition play.

Back to Chucky: In an alternate universe, I'd love to hear what Jon Gruden The Color Analyst would say this Monday night about a head coach -- someone other than himself -- who handled the Khalil Mack debacle in the fashion Oakland chose to.

Shipping Mack to the Bears for a bushel of draft picks stood in sharp contrast to a Rams team that emphasized all along that Aaron Donald was its most important priority -- no matter what order Los Angeles chose to pay its players.

Gruden also traded for wideouts Martavis Bryant and Ryan Switzer this offseason, only to dump them both before Week 1. Those moves are forgivable, but Oakland's offseason still reads like a winding mystery novella with a half-baked plot. While the additions of rookie defensive linemen Arden Key, P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst look promising, it's hard to argue how the Raiders have improved under Gruden's watch.

Nothing would heal a perceived heap of offseason sins like knocking off the Super Bowl-hopeful Rams, but that feels like another high-concept fantasy for a pressure-packed Raiders operation with plenty to prove.

Back-from-the-wilderness Andrew Luck: It's tough to top the comeback of Teddy Bridgewater, but Luck comes close.

After being gone for what seemed like an adulthood, the Colts quarterback put together a pair of brilliant exhibition outings while forcing us to rethink the AFC South. Quietly one of the more intriguing contests of the weekend, Luck's regular-season return matches him up against a Bengals offense that flourished in August.

With a less-than-stellar defense in Indy, Luck might be asked to produce fireworks from the first whistle. What's not to like?

Vikings backstop Harrison Smith: Minnesota's path back to the playoffs begins at home against a team that generated waterfalls of hype all offseason in San Francisco.

Those high expectations channeled back to how the 49ers closed it out, with wonder boy/signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo taking over a 1-10 team and authoring five straight wins.

The play-calling prowess of coach Kyle Shanahan is no fluke; neither is the innate talent of his 26-year-old star passer. Still, the Niners aren't the Vikings when you stare at both rosters, and it's unfair to expect San Francisco to roll through teams from start to finish.

The season-ending injury suffered by running back Jerick McKinnon hurts, but Alfred Morris and Matt Breida will find a way to produce. The bigger concern in Week 1 is Minnesota's defense, pitting Jimmy G against an all-star cast of linemen, rushers, linebackers and secondary heroes. It's a pick-your-poison collection of heavies, but I can't get my mind off the team's stellar safety, Harrison Smith.

A hard-hitting, run-exploding, pickoff machine, he's the ideal candidate to give Garoppolo a taste of trouble out of the gate. Ultimately, these stiff tests could turn San Francisco's franchise passer into the player we all know he can become.

The brightest star in The Windy City: One of the more rousing cut days in league history kicked off with a bang when Gruden and the Raiders gave up their fight to ink Khalil Mack to a long-term deal.

Now for the Bears side of things. Mack is being added to an already-talented defense, where he'll suit up on the other side of the formation from fellow pass rusher Leonard Floyd. No better opening opportunity exists for the franchise than showcasing Mack against annual Bears killer Aaron Rodgers on Sunday night. The nearly-perfect Packers passer has made a cottage industry of blowing through Chicago for years on end while this gasping-for-air fan base wonders when the rivalry will finally even out.

With the ferocious Mack added to a squad led by quarterback Mitch Trubisky and creative first-year coach Matt Nagy, Chicago's long night might soon meet the morning sun.

Houston's gaggle of O-linemen angling to keep Deshaun Watson upright: It's easy to forget how close the upstart Texans came to knocking off the Patriots last season with a still-healthy Deshaun Watson at the controls.

Watson is back, but what little we can learn from the preseason offered one genuine concern over this attack continuing at last year's pace: the offensive line. Houston's front five doesn't include a single player who graded above a 65 out of 100 from Pro Football Focus. While the Texans went out of their way to add bodies, they didn't pull off the equivalent of the Giants landing left tackle Nate Solder or the Colts drafting an interior-line bully like Quenton Nelson.

Maybe it all works out, but on paper, the line looks like one of the weakest league-wide, which raises concerns over Watson's fortunes. Coach Bill O'Brien knows Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots well -- enough to know Belichick will go out of his way to exploit any weakness to the hilt.


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