The countdown to the 2014/15 NFL season is on.
As all 32 teams head into training camp this weekend, the off-season programs are completed and coaches will now attempt to fine tune the team aspects on the gridiron.
Last season’s Superbowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, head into their title defence in a strong position to make another run at the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Their vaunted defence is in place with the self-named ‘Legion of Boom’ ready to give opposition quarterbacks nightmares, whilst Russell Wilson will look to add more offensive punch to his already solid repertoire.
The only major loss for Seattle is receiver Golden Tate – who led the Seahawks in receptions last year – as he signed a free agent deal in Detroit.
Aussie Jesse Williams will be aiming to make his NFL debut early this season after he missed the entire Superbowl-winning season with knee issues.
Williams already possesses a championship ring but this training camp will be crucial for him if he hopes to make an impact in 2014.
Runners-up Denver will be hoping some off-season additions to the roster will be enough for them to win that last match and secure themselves Superbowl glory.
Superstar quarterback Peyton Manning was outplayed by Seattle’s defence in the main event but his season was otherwise flawless as he amassed an amazing 55 touchdown passes – the most in NFL history for a single season.
It didn’t all go Denver’s way in the free agency period however, as quality receiver Erik Decker departed for the New York Jets on big money and standout running back Knowshon Moreno took a deal in Miami with the Dolphins.
Those that did join the Broncos included cornerback Aqib Talib from the rival New England Patriots and veteran defensive lineman DeMarcus Ware, who put together numerous Pro-Bowl calibre seasons in Dallas.
Here are half a dozen things to watch for in the upcoming NFL season!
1) Johnny Cleveland
Never before has an undersized, party-boy quarterback been as hyped as Johnny Manziel as he enters his first NFL season.
Manziel – drafted by Cleveland at pick 22 – even enters training camp behind teammate Bryan Hoyer in the depth chart, but many expect Manziel to takeover the starting job at some point in the early rounds of the season.
Manziel hails from a wealthy family and has spent his first off-season as a pro partying in Las Vegas with celebrities like rapper Drake, boxer Floyd Mayweather and actor Tyrese Gibson.
The circus surrounding Manziel will be the hottest topic early on and may only be topped by NBA megastar LeBron James when he returns to Cleveland for the Cavaliers.
2) More Cowboys Carnage?
The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most popular sporting teams in the world.
But recently, they have almost been a laughing stock.
Owner Jerry Jones loves to stick his 20 cents into all things Cowboys and despite his best intentions lying with the Cowboys, he has been known to put players, coaches and opposition teams under the blowtorch.
Quarterback Tony Romo feels the wrath of the US media as much as anyone in the NFL and as he tries to return from back surgery, another losing season will make for even more heated discussion about the club they call ‘America’s Team.’
3) The New Breed
The NFL is never short on star power.
Fortunately, as veterans QB’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees enter their final few seasons, there is a new breed of star playmakers ready to take the league into a new era.
Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, EJ Manuel, Nick Foles and Andrew Luck are all entering the prime of their careers and with their combined talents on display every Sunday, the NFL is in a great place.
4) Show me the Money
Listen to any NFL player or executive and you will hear them echo the same statement – the NFL is a business.
And as always, we enter training camp with numerous star players locked in contract disputes or without contract offers at all.
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis is yet to show for off-season workouts and is unlikely to be at training camp as he holds out on the 49ers for a new deal.
He is currently contracted and by not attending camp he will surrender hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cincinnati duo Andy Dalton and AJ Green entered the league at the same time and the two have become a dangerous QB-WR combination.
Green is among the league’s best receivers and a big-money deal shouldn’t be far away but the Bengals are yet to commit to Dalton who has led the team to the playoffs but is yet to secure a victory in the post-season.
5) Wrong side of the Law
The dark side of the NFL rears its ugly head almost every off-season when players go on leave and are seemingly free to get up to whatever they please.
An alarming fact appeared early in the off-season when it was announced that an NFL player was arrested every nine days.
Unfortunately, the most recent break was not spent smartly as reputable names such as 49er Aldon Smith (weapons and DUI charges) and Cleveland stud Josh Gordon (drugs).
Gordon – who led the league in receiving yards last year – faces a season-long ban if found guilty of breaching the NFL’s drugs policy for a third time.
Smith has been on the wrong side of the law on multiple occasions, once arrested and removed from Los Angeles airport for claiming he had a bomb and more seriously, Smith was sentenced to a 12-day jail sentence for felony weapons and DUI charges.
49ers LB Aldon Smith was sentenced Friday to 12 days in jail on DUI charges but will be allowed to serve his sentence on a work crew.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) July 19, 2014
Trouble with the law is nothing new in the NFL – but when a team’s star player is amongst the trouble, things can really spiral out of control.
6) Welcome to the NFL, Rookie!
As always, a new class of rookies enter their first training camps – some as 1st round picks with huge expectations, others at the other end of the spectrum who are just hoping to make the 53-man roster.
The Houston Texans selected defensive end Jadaveon Clowney, who last year suffered intense scrutiny when he was accused of playing half speed at South Carolina to protect his body for the NFL.
Cowney is expected to partner with All-Pro JJ Watt and form a deadly 1-2 punch and strike fear into all opposing quarterbacks.
As mentioned, Johnny Manziel enters his first NFL season under as much spotlight as anyone in history whilst any eyes not focused on Manziel will be glued to Saint Louis Ram draftee, Michael Sam.
Sam was selected in the seventh round of the draft (249th overall) and whilst almost all late draft picks go usually unnoticed, Sam came out as openly gay before the NFL draft.
Sam is yet to make the roster and many have doubted his ability to make it at the elite level, but despite that his movements in training camp and throughout the pre-season games will be watched like few before him.
Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis. I'm using every once of this to achieve greatness!! pic.twitter.com/QESdOJVzsw
— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) May 10, 2014
Photo via Flickr – Mark Fletcher