The start of the 2016 NFL season is but weeks away, and unpacking all the potential drama is a task that would require pages and pages of context. If you're looking for something a little more streamlined, we've compiled most of the new wrinkles to watch for in convenient alphabetical format. It's a quick, though still comprehensive look at some of the biggest storylines coming into this season.
Arizona's boom-or-bust year. The Cardinals were trounced in the NFC Championship game last season, though with the addition on Chandler Jones on defense and the hope that Carson Palmer can stay healthy, Arizona is looking toward another deep playoff run. They have to make hay while the sun is shining. Months shy of his 37th birthday, it's hard to imagine Palmer being around much longer and the Cards know too well how difficult it is to find another franchise quarterback.
Brocktopus. The Texans' search for a better-than-just-adequate passer has encompassed the franchise's entire history and now they're tying their hitch to Brock Osweiler. That's a lot to put on a guy with seven career starts, though had Osweiler remained in Denver, he'd now be the starting quarterback of the defending champs, facing a similar amount of pressure. Either way, even with another strong defense at his back, Osweiler will have to produce quickly to meet expectations.
Catch rule, clarified yet again. Every offseason the NFL revisits its language on what constitutes a catch. This season the rule was tweaked to be a different flavor of vague. This is not a bug, but a feature. At some point, football fans have to come to terms with the fact that in some situations a catch is a judgment call by the officials. The NFL is simply incapable of bringing exactitude into this situation.
Doug Pederson's problem now. After the Chip Kelly fiasco, the Eagles turned to one of Andy Reid's former assistants, who is on good terms with the management. While the development of Carson Wentz is imperative, Philly's aggressive defense, run by Jim Schwartz, is appearing like it could be a force to be reckoned with this year.
Ejections for personal fouls. One of the NFL's trickiest rule changes for this season is the automatic ejection for multiple personal foul penalties. On its face, it's a measure to ensure safety, but the strategic repurcussions have yet to be seen. After drawing one flag, does a player hit the bench in hopes of being saved for later? Will the other team try to provoke them more, knowing they can get a player ejected?
Foreign games, now more of them. In addition to the three games scheduled in London this season, the NFL returns to Mexico for the first time since 2005. Thankfully it comes in Week 11, which takes place after the presidential election, so there's less of a chance Donald Trump says something shocking about it, though he still might.
Going for two, hopefully more often. In 2015, the first season after extra point attempts were moved back, there was an increase in two-point attempts, with the Steelers setting a single-season record for conversions. The NFL is slow to adapt to adventurous style, though it's fair to expect at least a little more of an uptick in two-point attempts in 2016.
Hot takes on a kicker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers apparently committed the cardinal sin of drafting a kicker in the second round, and so football media needs to freak out every time Roberto Aguayo misses a kick. The rookie is having a rough preseason, which doesn't matter much. But he's shaken up enough that he's been in touch with former kicker Ryan Longwell, as well as a "mental coach." Aguayo has plenty of time to right the ship, but rest assured there will be many told-ya-sos if he doesn't.
Injury reporting, no longer probable. Early this week, the NFL announced that it's changing the way teams report injuries. The "probable" designation was eliminated because roughly 95 percent of those listed probable ended up playing. Instead, coaches will now abuse the "questionable" designation in an effort to throw off the opposition.
Jaguars hype is a thing. You heard that right -- people are expecting good things out of Jacksonville in 2016. While there's not exactly a consensus on how good, the attitude among pundits is that the Jags could at least flirt with respectability this season, which would be a big departure from the recent past. Of course, there's little basis for this other than some impressive-seeming draft picks and free agent signings, so it's entirely possible it's just a setup for another season of devastation.
Kirk Cousins' franchise year. Following a breakout season in which Cousins threw 29 touchdowns and posted a passer rating over 100, the quarterback and the 'Skins couldn't work out a long-term deal, meaning Cousins is back with the team thanks only to the franchise tag. After thinking they found their savior in RGIII only for the situation to blow up in their face, the team isn't ready to fall in love with Cousins yet and that could seriously cost them if he repeats his performance from 2015, or improves further. If Cousins regresses, the team looks somewhat smart, though only at the price of not being very good.
Los Angeles football. It's back, and while the NFL is crowing about preseason ticket sales, that's hardly indicative of long-term success. It will be years before anyone really knows whether L.A. embraces the Rams the second time around. In the meantime, there's always the matter of whether Jeff Fisher can snag the all-time record for losses by a coach, which can be reached this season with an entirely plausible 10 losses.
Memes and streaming. Twitter will be streaming NFL games this season, and while it's still unclear how exactly that will function, it's safe to say, as it did during the Olympics, the league and the social media platform will aggressively police the media users post. But rest assured Twitter will deal with that harrassment problem any year now.
No pressure, no diamonds. The Cleveland Browns are far from assured a return to respectability. This is the Browns, after all. Theirs is an intriguing story with Robert Griffin III attempting career resurrection under the leadership of quarterback whisperer Hue Jackson. There's also the new Moneyball influence in the front office, meaning the Browns may still be pathetic, but they'll be pathetic with a pedigree.
Omnipotent Goodell. Thanks to off-season court victories over Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson, the Commissioner is feeling his oats and throwing his weight around, as the current dramas with James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal demonstrate. An all-powerful Goodell is probably not great for the sport and, knowing how Goodell has exercised his power in the past, a recipe for disaster. But until the screw-up comes, that's the Ginger Hammer we're going to get.
Paxton Lynch, at some point. The rookie is still something of a longshot to win the Broncos starting job by the start of the season, but the assumption is he'll have it by mid-October. It's not particularly remarkable or even unwise to bring a young passer along with caution, though it is a curious situation for a defending Super Bowl champion to find itself. Denver's quarterback shuffle wasn't without drama in 2015 and that didn't derail the team from a title run. Still, the veteran presence on this team is Mark Sanchez, and he's having a hard time beating two mostly unproven passers during the preseason.
Questionable officiating. Suspect calls are nothing new and will never be entirely eradicated, though the NFL has a decision to make about how to improve the quality of officiating. The number of penalties per game has been up each of the last two years, with the mark hitting 16.3 per game in 2015. The NFL has been experimenting with an eighth official on the field during the second week of the preseason and how 2016 plays out will go a long way to determining whether the league votes to make that a permanent change in 2017.
Ryan brothers unite. A slew of preseason injuries has already tamped whatever enthusiasm there was among Bills Mafia for the season ahead, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't be excited. There's a full season (presumably) with Rex and Rob Ryan together. There's bound to be some great stories, or even some sideline wrestling matches.
Stafford without Megatron. Matthew Stafford has had several fine seasons, though has never been held in particularly high esteem by the public. Perhaps it's because he's always had one of the best receivers in the game helping his cause. Not anymore. Stafford, with the playcalling of the inimitable Jim Bob Cooter, now has to rely on the collective talents of Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin and Golden Tate to see him through. That probably means fewer jump balls. What happens instead will determine whether Stafford is just another starter or something more.
Touchbacks aplenty. As part of the NFL's incremental move toward eliminating kickoffs, a touchback now results in a drive starting at a team's own 25 yard line. That surely won't eliminate kick returns entirely, though it should reduce the number of them this season. Now if only the league can find a way to get rid of commercial breaks before and after each kick.
Untested Jimmy Garoppolo. The first four weeks of the season belong to the Patriots' other handsome QB. Garoppolo has shown flashes of competence in the preseason, though that's hard to gauge with players going less than full speed. After the Week 1 gauntlet against Arizona, the next three weeks look like they could be survived unless Jimmy really struggles. As long as the Pats can steal at least one or two, they'll be in fine hands when the conquering Dreamboat returns in Week 5.
Vikings on the verge. Minnesota should have advanced to the second round of the playoffs last year were it not for a shanked 27-yard field goal in the last minute. That's the Vikings for you. Getting back to the postseason is certainly no given, but Minnesota surely has the talent to make a run in the NFC if they avoid the pitfalls that sink most teams. Taking a Super Bowl-caliber team like the Seahawks to the brink shows the Vikings have what it takes to win -- now they just have to make it happen.
Wide receiver-cornerback fights. With Josh Norman now playing in the NFC East (Washington), that's twice a season he'll presumably get to face off against Odell Beckham, with whom Norman waged perhaps the biggest brawl of the 2015 season.
X-factor in the AFC West. The Raiders were a hot pick to make noise in 2015 and while they didn't end up with a playoff berth, Oakland's 7-9 finish was the franchise's best in four years. Getting Bruce Irvin in free agency will improve what was already a promising front seven. If the offense can build around the connection between Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, 2016 could finally be the year the Raiders return to the postseason for the first time since they lost Super Bowl XXXVII.
You will no longer wait all day for Sunday night. There are always some superficial presentation changes in TV broadcast to look forward. If you saw the "oooooOOOooohhh Sunday night" ads that NBC was showing during the Olympics, then you know that they have a new theme for Sunday Night Football to unveil soon. Mike Tirico joins the crew this season, though the NFL made news this week for declining NBC's plans for Tirico to take over for Al Michaels during Thursday night games on the network later in the season.
Zach Mettenberger: still on a roster. Look, finding a "Z" is hard, and so is playing quarterback. And for one more season, at least, a team is paying Mettenberger to do just that. This time, it's the Chargers. San Diego's season is likely to be depressing even in best-case scenarios, though if Mettenberger gets on the field with regularity, that's likely first overall pick territory.