6 groups of players set to define the NFL season

Sean M. Haffey, Kevin C. Cox, Ethan Miller, Kevin Hoffman, Tom Pennington, Pasadena Star-News / Getty Images

The NFL season kicks off Thursday night in Los Angeles and gets moving in earnest Sunday. Expect these six sets of players - positional counterparts who are linked by team, conference, city, or circumstance - to influence playoff races across the league and decide who reaches Super Bowl LVII.

AFC's glut of top quarterbacks

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Certain single-season statistical milestones reveal excellence in a quarterback: 5,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing, a 70% completion rate on high volume. The greats flirt with these numbers and win major awards while vying for championships.

Five AFC gunslingers - Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes - reached some or most of these milestones at remarkable ages. They enter 2022 as MVP contenders whose styles differ but always electrify. They headline theScore's Justin Boone's QB fantasy rankings. The oldest among them is 26, younger than Aaron Rodgers was when he won his only Super Bowl title.

One path to the big game next February runs through this superstar cluster. Disappointment will fuel all five of them. Burrow's Cincinnati Bengals lost Super Bowl LVI after eliminating Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs, who were fresh off stunning Allen's Buffalo Bills in an instant classic. Division titles are in reach for Jackson and Herbert despite their clubs, the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers, missing last postseason.

Most of the AFC will start a Pro Bowl QB in Week 1. Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan join Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill as the conference's veteran stalwarts. Mac Jones impressed throughout his rookie year. That's 10 accomplished passers aiming for the same scarce prize.

NFC's second-tier QBs

When Tom Brady rejoined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, he invoked his age to explain his absence from training camp on personal leave: "I'm 45 years old, man. There's a lot of shit going on."

He's 45 but seems ageless under center, having threatened Peyton Manning's single-season passing yards record last year. Brady's peers just voted him the top player in the league - narrowly ahead of Rodgers, the 38-year-old two-time reigning MVP for the Green Bay Packers.

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Could a challenger eclipse these legends and dethrone Matthew Stafford's Los Angeles Rams? The NFC's next-best QBs have questions to answer to carve out a spot among the elite.

  • Will Jalen Hurts elevate his game in Year 3? He has reliable and explosive receivers to target in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith but has to improve his accuracy. He ranked fifth last season in yards per completion (11.9) but was 28th in completion percentage (61.3) and 22nd in completion percentage over expectation (0.1, per Ben Baldwin's data).

  • Can Dak Prescott spearhead a Super Bowl run? The Dallas Cowboys' playoff record in his six seasons is 1-3. In 2023, when the fat part of his contract kicks in, he'll be the second-highest paid QB in the league behind Deshaun Watson. Prescott will square off with Brady, Burrow, and Stafford by Week 5 and visit Hurts' Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6.

  • Will Kyler Murray justify his new megadeal - and the removal of that pesky homework clause? The Arizona Cardinals tailed off last season after starting 7-0. The management's initial decision to codify his study habits suggests the pressure's on Murray to take another step.

  • Can Trey Lance shine with Jimmy Garoppolo around? Lance was limited to 71 pass attempts as a rookie as Garoppolo presided over a deep playoff push. Now that Lance is the San Francisco 49ers' present and future QB, his first test is keeping the starter's job.

Receivers in new places

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A.J. Brown and Marquise Brown were traded at the draft for first-round picks. The Las Vegas Raiders landed Davante Adams from Green Bay. The Chiefs dealt Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins and made moves to try to compensate, signing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling as part of the offseason receiver carousel.

Wideout movement reshaped the NFC's top teams. The Rams tapped Allen Robinson as Odell Beckham Jr.'s immediate replacement. Russell Gage and Julio Jones signed with the Bucs to spread the field for Brady. The Adams trade harms Rodgers' MVP candidacy; Amari Cooper leaving Dallas could either hurt Prescott or uplift CeeDee Lamb.

The Jacksonville Jaguars handed out rich contracts to Christian Kirk and Zay Jones. They join an attack that was 30th in passing DVOA last season, per Football Outsiders, supplying hope that Trevor Lawrence will ascend to a level worthy of the No. 1 overall pick.

Bengals' revamped offensive line

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Cincinnati almost raised the Lombardi Trophy in February despite fielding one of the NFL's weakest protection units. No QB absorbed more sacks (51) than Burrow last season. The Rams racked up seven sacks in their Super Bowl triumph, letting Stafford outgun Burrow and engineer a late comeback.

The Bengals were a rare conference champion whose O-line stunk, but they seemed to fix that flaw when free agency opened. Contrast their Super Bowl quintet with the unit that's expected to start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Karras and Cappa are Super Bowl winners; Collins is an elite run-blocker who also pass protects well. Keeping Burrow upright on more dropbacks would benefit Cincinnati's 1,000-yard playmakers - Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Joe Mixon - and give the Bengals the chance to lead the NFL in scoring (they were seventh in 2021).

AFC North opponents could squash that goal. Cincinnati shares a division with Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt (22.5 sacks) and the Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett (16.0), who were first and third in sacks in 2021. (Somehow, the Bengals managed to keep Watt off Burrow the one time they met last season.)

Meanwhile, Baltimore's secondary - fortified by the Marcus Williams signing and Marcus Peters' recovery from a torn ACL - opens the year ranked as the best in the league by PFF. Any offensive upgrade in this division is significant.

L.A.'s pass rushers

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Von Miller left for Buffalo, but Aaron Donald is back to lead the championship defense. The Rams were No. 1 in the NFL in pass-rush win rate at 53% last season, and Donald's 26% win rate paced all defensive tackles, per ESPN Analytics. So did his 12.5 sacks.

Donald's stamina is peerless, too: He's played more snaps than any interior defensive lineman since his rookie year, 2014, PFF points out.

Elsewhere, the AFC West boasts great passers and defensive nuisances who can counter them. They range from Chris Jones, the All-Pro Chiefs tackle, to Chandler Jones, Maxx Crosby's new Raiders linemate.

Beyond adding J.C. Jackson to the secondary, the Chargers dealt for Khalil Mack to deploy him and Joey Bosa on opposite edges. Brandon Staley's team ranked 29th in points allowed last season and 30th in DVOA against the rush, according to Football Outsiders, but was closer to average in sacks and QB hurries. That could become a source of strength in the NFL's toughest division.

Buffalo's secondary

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The Bills topped the Week 1 edition of theScore's power rankings. Whether they justify that billing depends on the defensive backfield's health and resilience.

Anchored by Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who combined for 10 interceptions to earn All-Pro nods at safety, Buffalo led the NFL last season in defensive DVOA and DVOA against the pass.

While Poyer's back from the elbow hyperextension that sidelined him all preseason, Tre'Davious White continues to rehab the ACL tear he suffered last Thanksgiving. White's presence on the physically unable to perform list thrusts first-round cornerback Kaiir Elam into the early-season spotlight.

No team allowed fewer points (17 per game) than the Bills in 2021, but Kansas City torched them for 42 points in that playoff epic. Mahomes passed for 188 yards and two touchdowns on the Chiefs' frantic last few scoring drives, asserting his greatness under extraordinary pressure as he exposed costly lapses in coverage.

His club hosts Buffalo again in Week 6, by which point White will be eligible to take the field.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

6 groups of players set to define the NFL season
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