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XLIX things to watch throughout the 2014 NFL season

It might appear as if Johnny Manziel -- and his pro day with a president, his friendships with Floyd Mayweather, Justin Bieber and LeBron James, his maybe/almost/can you imagine near-miss as the Dallas Cowboys' draft pick, his inflatable swan -- owned the entire NFL offseason. It's not true, but Manziel and the klieg lights he seems to travel with pushed everything else into small type, from the development of an extraordinary defensive prospect (Jadeveon Clowney) to the barrier-breaking of the NFL's first openly gay player (Michael Sam).

Manziel's consignment to the Cleveland Browns' bench for the start of the season -- however brief his stay there might be -- gives us just enough time and oxygen to ponder all the things we'll be watching this year. Here are 49 to count down until we board the plane for Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona:

The storylines we'll be talking about through December

I. Uh ... Johnny Football. Yup, who am I kidding? There are so many layers here -- What does owner Jimmy Haslam want? Can Brian Hoyer play well enough to hold off what seems like Manziel's inevitable ascension? Could Hoyer parlay this into a starting opportunity elsewhere next season? Can Manziel stay in one piece whenever he starts playing? -- that it almost doesn't even matter if the Browns are any good.

II. Just how low can the Cowboys' defense go? It was the worst in the league last year, and because of a toxic brew of salary cap constraints, injuries and suspensions, it appears to have suffered a slow-trickle talent leak that could bring about historic-level awfulness. What's left of the unit will face a very difficult schedule, which includes the loaded NFC West plus the Saints, Bears and Colts. Good luck, Rod Marinelli. And it's probably not too early to start wondering about coach Jason Garrett's job security, regardless of what Jerry Jones has said publicly.

III. Denver and New England engaged in what John Elway dubbed an "arms race" in free agency, with both paying special attention to beefing up on defense. There's not much question these are the AFC's premier teams, but who won the arms race? And how much will the departure of guard Logan Mankins on the eve of the regular season impact a Patriots offensive line that is already absorbing the retirement of longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia? Tune in to the AFC Championship Game to find out.

IV. At what point will we start lining up available college quarterbacks with the Houston Texans in mock drafts for 2015? The selection of Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick this year was a no-brainer, but the Texans surprised the league when they didn't try to move into position to get an NFL-ready quarterback in the early rounds. They opted to wait until Day 3 to take Tom Savage, settling in with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been uneven in the preseason.

V. How Eli Manning adapts to the first offensive switchover of his pro career -- there was finally a sign of slow acclimation in one drive of Big Blue's fourth preseason game -- will go a long way toward determining whether the Giants rebound from a disastrous season to contend in a weak NFC East or set up another offseason with the kind of sweeping change this franchise doesn't make lightly.

VI. Who goes from worst to first this year? In 11 straight seasons, at least one team finished first in its division the season after finishing last. Last year, two teams -- Philadelphia and Carolina -- did it. This year's candidates: Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland, Washington, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta (the Buccaneers and Falcons shared the NFC South cellar at 4-12, though Tampa did officially finish last via tiebreakers).

The trends we'll be watching for

VII. The slow demise of the read option probably began last September, when officiating czar Dean Blandino decreed in a video that read-option quarterbacks can be hit like every other runner. But the final death knell might come this season. Washington coach Jay Gruden already has declared that he will use the read option only in "sprinkles" with Robert Griffin III, who made the tactic so compelling in 2012 before it also made him an injury-based cautionary tale.

VIII. Traditional pocket passers could enjoy the start of the latest offensive explosion, thanks to the officiating emphasis on illegal contact. The avalanche of flags thrown in the preseason is likely to regulate as defensive players get used to how closely the game is being called, but that probably means more receivers will be running free. It's hard to imagine how many more yards people like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees can throw for, but consider that the last time such contact was a point of emphasis was a decade ago -- ironically, after Manning's Colts were foiled by the physical play of the Patriots in the playoffs. That launched the era of record-setting aerial attacks that we're in right now. Good luck, defensive backs.

Stock watch: Rookie quarterbacks


Our resident scouts, Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, provide preseason grades for Blake Bortles and his fellow rookie QBs. **READ**

IX. Barring a last-minute change -- and if Matt Schaub's arm doesn't heal up, there could be one in Oakland -- this will be the first time since 2007 that a rookie quarterback is not starting in Week 1. That might be a statement about the relative readiness of this class, though Blake Bortles has looked more than capable in the preseason. That said, Jacksonville's been adamant all along about wanting to give the No. 3 overall pick plenty of pressure-free time to learn the position. Just two years after the rookie trio of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson took the league by storm, might Bortles, Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Co. convince coaches that it is sometimes better to wait to serve youth?

UPDATE:NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that the Raiders will start Carr in Week 1 against the New York Jets.

X. The future of the Oakland Raiders is as murky and fascinating as ever, with real uncertainty about their stadium situation (the lease is up after the season), their quarterback situation (Schaub or Carr, as touched on just above), and the job security of general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen. Making matters harder to predict: The Raiders have the toughest strength of schedule entering the season and will travel 36,078 miles, over 11,000 miles more than any other team.

XI. Enjoy your bathroom breaks and refrigerator runs while you can, because this could be the last time you can count on the extra point to give you a respite. The preseason experiment with a 33-yard extra point was a success because it produced failure -- eight of them were missed, dropping the conversion rate to 94.3 percent. That is well below the 99.6 percent conversion rate last year on all extra points from 20 yards out. Reviews of the experiment were mixed among coaches and kickers, but Blandino believes a permanent change is on the way, and John Mara, the Giants' president and a member of the Competition Committee, thought the experiment went well. Most importantly, Commissioner Roger Goodell has been clear that he wants the extra point to be a meaningful play again. So pay particular attention to how teams do with the two-point conversion this year, because we are likely to see more of it if the kick is lengthened next season.

XII. But don't try to take that bathroom break during replay reviews or penalties. The point of emphasis on illegal contact would seem to make it likely that games would last longer because of all the stoppages of play. That was a major point of conversation among league officials and Competition Committee members, because game management and time of game are major concerns for the league (which likes games to run about three hours, to fit neatly into television programming windows). But Blandino anticipates that delays for reviews will drop significantly, now that he can communicate from New York with officials. After the first two weeks of the preseason, the time per review already had been reduced by nine seconds from last season's average -- in large part because Blandino is often talking into the ear of the referee about what he sees on the replay before the referee even gets under the hood. The other things Blandino has emphasized to officiating crews: Don't let timeouts last longer than 30 seconds, get the teams on the field for kickoffs on time and limit crew conferences (which should be helped by the wireless headsets officials wear now).

XIII. The Buffalo Bills almost certainly will have a new owner by the end of the season. The threat of relocation seems to have subsided, but how long of a leash will a new owner give GM Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone to continue their franchise makeover, particularly with a mediocre-looking starting quarterback and no first-round draft pick next year?

The people

XIV. We renew our annual plea: Please come back, Gronk. We miss you -- and so does Tom Brady.

XV. For the love of Dr. James Andrews, please learn how to slide this season, RGIII.

XVI. Cue up the Sammy Watkins highlight reel and remember those plays were only from practice.

XVII. And also wonder if EJ Manuel is a good enough quarterback to take advantage of Watkins.

XVIII.Ben Roethlisberger has been agitating for the no-huddle offense for years. Todd Haley is on board. These are not your dad's Pittsburgh Steelers.

XIX. Whither Michael Vick? The competition that wasn't will put Vick, who could likely be starting for a handful of other teams, on the Jets' bench. Can Geno Smith keep him there?

XX.Blake Bortles might be the best rookie quarterback this year. This 22-year-old and his new team are on the rise, even as the roster gets restocked, and he could be so good that he forces veteran Chad Henne to the bench much earlier than the Jaguars anticipated.

XXI.Steve Smith is helping to rejuvenate the Ravens' offense. That's nice. But this is what we really care about: Baltimore vs. Carolina, Sept. 28. You can probably hear the chirping already.

XXII. The most maligned star quarterback in the NFL -- that's you, Tony Romo -- has plenty of weapons and, finally, an offensive line that might be able to keep him and his twice surgically-repaired back intact. Romo shoulders an unfair burden -- the aforementioned defense -- but if he can't lift Dallas out of its 8-8 divot, will Cowboys fans regret that someone reportedly pried the Johnny Manziel card out of Jerry Jones' hands?

XXIII.Darrelle Revis is back to good health -- ask Tom Brady, who was intercepted twice by him on the third day of Patriots camp -- and here's something that should alarm opposing quarterbacks: Bill Belichick has never had a cornerback this good to play around with.

XXIV. The Dolphins' offensive line was at the center of a bullying scandal that shook the team, elicited a scathing report from the league and generally called into question the culture of the NFL and the control Joe Philbin had over his players. The line has since been rebuilt, but is it any better than the fractured group that gave up an NFL-high 58 sacks last season?

XXV.Jim Harbaugh and his flying Sharpie are unquestionably successful ... and also a little oddly unstable. His future comes up at the end of every season -- right after another NFC Championship Game appearance by San Francisco, it seems. And considering that in February there were reports that the Cleveland Browns were in hot pursuit, it's worth keeping a close eye on how Harbaugh traverses this season, because he and the 49ershave tabled talks toward an extension until after it is over.

Maquinana: Foiling Father Time


Frank Gore's injury-plagued college career is a distant memory. Ryan Maquinana studies the San Francisco back's rare longevity. **READ**

XXVI. And take a moment to appreciate Harbaugh's ageless running back, Frank Gore. The 31-year-old Gore is entering the final year of his contract with the 49ers at an age when running backs usually are falling off a cliff. He needs just 33 yards to become the 29th running back in history to reach 10,000.

XXVII. What kind of magic might Jim Caldwell work with Matthew Stafford, given that the new Detroit Lions coach studied every one of his quarterback's throws before he even got the job?

XXVIII. While we're on the subject ... Will new coaches Caldwell, Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) and Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee) start to craft slightly greater success than they did the last time they were head coaches? All three led their former teams to the Super Bowl, but lost.

XXIX.Julius Peppers, at 34, might finally give Dom Capers' Packers defense the right pass rusher to bookend with Clay Matthews.

XXX.Cam Newton has to overcome recent ankle surgery (and a fractured rib suffered in the preseason) before he can start managing a revamped receiving corps. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin might bail out the slow leak of receivers that threatens to send the Panthers off their perch as defending division champs.

XXXI.Trent Richardson has had a year to get fully acclimated in Indianapolis and to take some of the burden off Andrew Luck behind a stitched-together offensive line.

XXXII. Can new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson take Andy Dalton and his new contract extension to new heights in Cincinnati and, perhaps, a playoff victory or two? If so, Jackson could earn himself another shot at head coaching in the process.

XXXIII.Michael Sam proved the NFL was ready for an openly gay player. Can he prove he belongs on the field?

What we'll be happy to not hear about again

XXXIV. A question of whether or not a field goal was good because it sailed over the upright. The Franken-uprights now in place -- the bolts that connected the extensions were visible at training camp practices -- should eliminate any guess-work about where the ball is.

What we'd like to not have to hear about again -- but will anyway

Harrison: 2014 All-Pro projections

Which players will define the 2014 campaign? Elliot Harrison glances into his crystal ball for preseason All-Pro picks. **READ**

XXXV. Whether the ball crosses the plane of the goal line. There are tablets on the sidelines, Wi-Fi in the stands and vegan hot dogs at the concession stand, but we can't have a laser or sensor to tell if a touchdown has been scored?

What we're looking forward to

XXXVI. This perhaps being the last season without expanded playoffs, because that would mean only the top seed would get a first-round bye, lending even more urgency to late-season games for even the best teams.

Games to watch

XXXVII.Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Sept. 4: A superb early test for the Seahawks' dominant secondary and hopes of repeating. And perhaps a very early preview of the NFC Championship Game.

XXXVIII.Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos, Sept. 7: The Colts look poised to make the jump to Patriots/Broncos AFC elite territory if they can put up the bunches of points that the Broncos do. Reminder: The Colts won last year in Peyton Manning's emotional homecoming.

XXXIX.Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks, Sept. 21: The Broncos wanted to get tougher after the beatdown they suffered in Super Bowl XLVIII. They'll find out how much progress has been made here.

XL.Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers, Sept. 28: A classic offense-vs.-defense battle is also an early look at two NFC playoff favorites.

XLI.Cleveland Browns at Tennessee Titans, Oct. 5: The Browns' first game after their bye, which would be a natural time to make a quarterback change ...

XLII.New York Jets at New England Patriots, Oct. 16: Wouldn't be a surprise to see Rex Ryan weeping at the sight of Darrelle Revis playing for the other side in one of the NFL's most absurd rivalries. Memo to Geno Smith: Do not throw to Revis' side of the field if you value your job.

XLIII.Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Nov. 2: The epic Manning-Brady rivalry is winding down with each passing year, so we must enjoy every last showdown. And we'll probably see the AFC's best teams again in the conference title game. Reminder: The Patriots won the regular-season game in 2013, while the Broncos won the AFC Championship Game.

XLIV.Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Nov. 9: Both teams will be coming off their bye week, meaning this all-important meeting of fierce rivals will be played with as much rest and as few injuries as possible.

XLV.Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins, Dec. 28: Why? Because since 2010, the Cowboys' opponent on the final Sunday of the season has wound up being the NFC East champion.

XLVI. Any game between two NFC West teams: From the first (49ers at Cardinals on Sept. 21) to the last (Cardinals at 49ers and Rams at Seahawks on Dec. 28), every game in football's best division should be close and will definitely be significant.

Stories to make you smile ... even if your team makes you cry

XLVII.The comeback attempt of Cowboys defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, who emerged from a medically induced coma 13 months ago in the midst of a long battle with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Okoye, a former first-round draft pick, was last in a game in December of 2012 and lost 78 pounds when he was ill.

Battista: What it means to be QB2


Backup quarterback: It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it. Judy Battista explores what it's like to be forever standing by. **READ**

XLVIII. The return to the starting lineup of Josh McCown, the Tampa Bay quarterback who, while out of the league four years ago, rejected a chance to join the Chicago Bears because he had given his word to the United Football League (he didn't want to teach his children a bad lesson) and then coached at a local high school.

XLIX. The triumph, however brief, of Brian Hoyer, who grew up just a few miles from where the Cleveland Browns are headquartered and then bounced around as a backup for four years before his hometown team signed him as a reserve QB. Last year, thrust into the starting job as the Browns flailed, he led them to two victories before leaving his third game early with a torn ACL. Now, 10 months later, he is the Browns' starter -- although probably not for very long, with Manziel waiting in the wings.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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