The most fascinating position to watch around the NFL in Week 1 will be the most important on the field: the quarterback, of course.
There’s little-known Trevor Siemian, who’ll make his first NFL throw for the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. There’s Jimmy Garoppolo, who’ll lead the Tom Brady-less New England Patriots into Arizona. There’s No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz, who is the surprise starter for Philadelphia against Cleveland. There’s Sam Bradford, who was supposed to start for the Eagles but is expected to be behind center for Minnesota after a major knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. There’s rookie Dak Prescott, a preseason star who is starting for the injured Tony Romo in Dallas against the Giants. There’s Andrew Luck coming back from an injury for the Indianapolis Colts.
That is some serious quarterback drama.
However, the quarterback I’ll be most closely watching is the one who was the best in the NFL last season: Mr. Cameron Jerrell Newton.
Newton broke out last season as the NFL MVP. He threw for 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns and was intercepted 10 times. However, Newton was completely flustered in a Super Bowl 50 loss to Denver. The intense Broncos defense suffocated Newton. He completed 18 of 41 passes and was sacked six times.
Newton never looked comfortable against the Broncos, and it clearly took him out of his game. Newton gets to face his Super Bowl demons Thursday night in the NFL season opener.
Denver’s defense still is expected to be dominant, but Newton knows what to expect. One of the storylines will be if Newton can learn from his Denver experience and find a way to shred the Broncos like he shredded the rest to the league last season. If not, we likely will see a repeat of last February in Santa Clara, Calif.
While Newton is the quarterback to watch on Williamson’s All-22 for Week 1, below is the rest of the starting lineup. This is not an All-Pro team. It is simply key players to watch, for various reasons, at each position in Week 1.
Running back: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings. Peterson led the NFL with 1,485 yards rushing last season. Peterson is 31, which is ancient in NFL running back circles. He still can be a factor, and the Vikings are counting on him being a factor as they move forward from the Bridgewater knee injury. Peterson is the focal point of Minnesota’s offense and will be Sunday at Tennessee.
Running back: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys. Elliott, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, makes his NFL debut against the Giants. Elliott is going to be a big part of Dallas’ offense this season, especially with Prescott likely playing half the season. Dallas will want to establish a ground attack with Elliott beginning in Week 1. Elliott showed an ability to pound defenses in a short preseason stint. It will be interesting to see if he can be a punishing force after contact right away in the regular season.
Wide receiver: Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is a happy man. His safety valve is back. Nelson missed last season with a knee injury, and Green Bay’s receivers struggled. The entire offense should improve, starting Sunday at Jacksonville with Nelson fully healthy. Nelson had 183 receptions for 2,833 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013 and 2014 combined. Rodgers is counting the minutes until Nelson is back in the huddle.
Wide receiver: Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers. Allen is returning from an injury. He was having an unreal 2015 season when he was lost for the season with a lacerated kidney. Allen had 67 catches for 725 yards and 4 touchdowns in eight games. The third-year player looks to be ready to go into his prime, and he will be a primary weapon for Philip Rivers on Sunday at Kansas City.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots. Garoppolo will have a best friend during the four games he is scheduled to start while Brady is serving his Deflategate suspension. Jimmy G. will call his new best friend “Gronk.” Gronkowski is already an all-time great tight end. Scouts say he is the biggest coverage mismatch in the NFL. Expect New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to try to exploit those mismatches as much as possible to assist Garoppolo.
Left tackle: Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens. The No. 6 overall pick from Notre Dame has been a stallion in the preseason. Sunday against Buffalo, Stanley will get a chance to play a full game and start showing the Ravens he is ready to become their next Jonathan Ogden.
Left guard: Josh Sitton, Chicago Bears. That’s right, the Chicago Bears. Along with the Bradford trade, the Packers’ release of Sitton was the surprise of cutdown weekend. Sitton has been one of the best guards in the NFL. When the Packers made this move, NFC North rival Chicago jumped on Sitton, giving him a three-year deal. Let’s see how he reacts against Houston after his sudden change.
Center: Joe Berger, Minnesota Vikings. It’s been an eventful summer for Berger. First, he beat out incumbent John Sullivan, and now he has to get Bradford up to speed. He has quite the responsibility.
Right guard: Anthony Davis, San Francisco 49ers. In one of the stranger recent stories, Davis is back with the 49ers after his sudden retirement last season. The former right tackle is now a right guard, and he is thinner. Let’s see if he is rusty against the Rams’ strong defensive front Monday night.
Right tackle: Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks. Gilliam started the summer at left tackle. Because of injuries along the line he was moved to right tackle and won the job. The Seattle offense is considered the team’s biggest question mark, and Gilliam is part of the question.
Defensive end: Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals. The pass rusher came to Arizona in a surprising trade with New England this offseason. Jones gets a crack at his old team in Week 1. He is a reason so much is expected from the Arizona defense. Surely, he will be amped for this game.
Defensive tackle: Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins. Suh was the free-agent prize of 2015. He was so-so in his first season in Miami and nowhere close to being worth the $114 million he signed for. Let’s see if Suh is more motivated Sunday at Seattle against an offensive line that can be handled.
Defensive tackle: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals.This is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Atkins looked great this summer. The Jets will have their hands full Sunday.
Defensive end: Kony Ealy, Carolina Panthers. Ealy was the bright spot for the Panthers in their Super Bowl loss. He terrorized Denver’s offensive line. He tied a Super Bowl record with 3 sacks, had an interception and forced a fumble. Had Carolina found a way to win, Ealy would have been the Super Bowl MVP. The Broncos surely have been spending a lot of time on Ealy in recent weeks.
Outside linebacker: Von Miller, Denver Broncos. Speaking of the Super Bowl MVP, hello, sir. Miller had the same effect on Carolina’s offense as Ealy did on Denver’s offense. Miller had 2.5 sacks and twice stripped Newton for fumbles. Miller scored a touchdown on one and set up the game-clinching touchdown with the other. Newton likely saw Miller in his sleep all offseason. He’ll be able to smell his breath again Thursday.
Middle linebacker: Manti Te’o, San Diego Chargers. With safety Eric Weddle in Baltimore, Te’o is the undisputed defensive leader in San Diego. His pre-Notre Dame internet scandal is well behind him. The Chargers open in Kansas City.
Outside linebacker: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans. The No. 1 pick of the 2014 draft finally seems healthy and looks primed to become the force the Texans drafted him to be. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler should be nervous this week.
Cornerback: Josh Norman, Washington Redskins. Norman was a surprise free agent after the process began. The Panthers rescinded their franchise tag offer to him, making him a stunning addition to free agency. The Redskins added the unexpected prize. Norman is a big talker, and he thinks he has something to prove. A Monday night date against Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger awaits.
Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals. Mathieu is back after suffering an ACL injury in December. He is the key to Arizona’s defense. Mathieu will be eager to take advantage of a Jimmy G. mistake.
Safety: Karl Joseph, Oakland Raiders. Joseph is returning from an ACL injury. The Raiders drafted the No. 14 overall pick so he could start right away. However, Joseph might not start this week, giving way to Nate Allen. Joseph is healthy, but he has been up and down in the preseason. If he doesn’t start at New Orleans, it will be a disappointment. Joseph will get some repetitions, and the Raiders have high hopes for him.
Cornerback: Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns. Haden is one of Cleveland’s better defensive players. He will check Wentz and try to coax him into making some mistakes in his first NFL game.