- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Denver Broncos were the first team to kick off an NFL training camp this summer, and by Wednesday the rookies and veterans of 20 teams will have reported to camp. That recent massive heat wave aside, it really feels like football is around the corner again.

These are the five biggest questions in the NFL as of this week. Some of them will be answered soon, while others will remain mysteries for a few more months.

Can Patriots be dethroned?

Let’s start with something existential. When will the reign of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick actually come to an end?

The Patriots represented the AFC in four of the last five Super Bowls, winning three. They’ve made it the most predictable conference or division in all of sports. But after Patrick Mahomes’ breakout season, the Kansas City Chiefs might have something to say about that.

Starring Mahomes and coached by Andy Reid — who’s still questing for a Lombardi Trophy, the crown jewel missing from his stellar resume — Kansas City is well-equipped to topple the Patriots in the playoffs. The Chiefs came close in the AFC Championship Game last year, taking the Patriots to overtime. Will they continue to look like a juggernaut as the summer develops?

On the NFC side, the Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints have the best Vegas odds of any NFC team to win Super Bowl LIV.

Are the Cleveland Browns for real?

All aboard the hype train. After years upon years as a laughingstock, the Browns have some fans dreaming big.

Cleveland replaced coach Hue Jackson with Freddie Kitchens mid-season and found some momentum, finishing 7-8-1 in 2018 after a combined 1-31 the previous two years. Baker Mayfield transitioned smoothly from Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick to capable starting quarterback (he narrowly missed out on Offensive Rookie of the Year).

Then came the offseason trade for star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. The volatile Beckham will want to put his Giants days behind him and make a fresh start, but at the same time he’s likely to find motivation in the trade — he told GQ this week he felt disrespected by New York’s front office.

Will the alpha personalities of Mayfield and Beckham mesh in Cleveland? Maybe, if Mayfield feeds Beckham the ball — and if they keep winning.

How much longer will Eli Manning last?

Speaking of the Giants, are Manning’s days numbered? The two-time Super Bowl champion is 38, he was sacked 47 times last year and he’s only won eight games in the past two seasons.

Enter Daniel Jones, the sixth overall draft pick out of Duke. Football analysts universally panned the Giants’ decision to draft him so high, with prospects like Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock still on the board. General manager Dave Gettleman has sent mixed signals, saying that Manning is still their franchise quarterback while also praising Jones every chance he got last spring.

If Jones wrests the job away from Manning in camp and is named the starting quarterback for Week 1, it would mark a pitiful end to Manning’s time in New York. But even if Manning remains the starter in September and October, the specter of “the quarterback of the future” will be following just behind him.

Will new interference rule succeed?

Thank the New Orleans Saints for a new rule allowing pass interference calls — and non-calls, like the famous miss in last year’s NFC Championship Game — to be challenged, reviewed and overturned. Or blame the Saints, if that’s what you prefer.

Detractors of the idea feel the rule just provides one more opportunity for a game to slow to a halt. But its supporters (like the 31 NFL teams that voted in favor of the measure at owners’ meetings) feel it is a necessary step to avoid blunders like last year, when many felt New Orleans was robbed of a trip to the Super Bowl. It could also keep defensive backs and receivers on their toes a bit more.

It’s not a training camp-specific question, necessarily — although coaches may already be studying which situations to take advantage of the new rule.

Will this be the best ‘Hard Knocks’ ever?

Here’s one we’ll have an answer to very soon. When football talking heads weren’t speculating about Cleveland or knocking Gettleman this summer, the Oakland Raiders were the topic du jour. “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Oakland Raiders” will debut Aug. 6, and the Raiders will provide everything the series ought to strive for on a yearly basis.

Storylines abound: The team is about to leave Oakland for Las Vegas. Derek Carr seems to have taken a step back and needs to find his way again. Characters, too: Antonio Brown. Jon Gruden. Richie Incognito. Vontaze Burfict.

The Raiders may not be good this year, but this will be tremendous content.

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