12 NFL storylines for 2018, from the national anthem to actual football on the field

With the regular season kicking off in full force this weekend, the NFL can use its on-field product to battle the tide of off-the-field issues that plague the game, starting with the national anthem.

The league has shown a knack in recent years for getting in its own way, clumsily handling player-discipline issues, particularly those related to domestic violence. Players protesting during the anthem is a divisive issue, but there’s a worthy debate whether it has actually affected the league’s bottom line. The earnings report released by the Packers, a publicly held team that has to open its books, suggests revenue streams remain robust.

With games starting up, there will be renewed focus on how players choose to participate (or not) during the anthem, but the league obviously wants the attention paid to the action on the field. A solution to the anthem issue seems harder to achieve than it should be, but the return of competition ought to aid the NFL as it wages a public relations battle, sometimes with itself.

Here are 11 other storylines to track in 2018:

Hunting the Eagles

Remember the dog masks Eagles players wore during their playoff run last season? They were putting the dog in the underdog role as they prepared to upset the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Those masks won’t do them much good this season unless they’re part of a Halloween costume as the defending champs are the team to beat, with coach Doug Pederson telling his players the motto for 2018 is “embrace the target.”

No NFC team has repeated as Super Bowl champion since the Cowboys 25 years ago. Carson Wentz is returning from a torn ACL, but no team has a better backup quarterback than the Eagles with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. The secondary has gotten a makeover and other injured players, including left tackle Jason Peters, will have to return, but the focus is on Wentz, who was dynamic last season until his injury in Week 14.

Dynasty crumbling?

The Patriots’ mystique doesn’t seem quite the same. Bill Belichick has yet to explain the benching of cornerback Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles and — guess what — he’s not going to anytime soon. Tom Brady, 41, skipped the team’s voluntary offseason program to spend time with his family, tight end Rob Gronkowski at least mulled retirement, wide receiver Julian Edelman was hit with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy and, oh yeah, Butler wasn’t the only player to exit in free agency. Left tackle Nate Solder, running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Danny Amendola also bolted.

It would be dangerous to bet against Brady and the Patriots in the regular season. They’ve won the AFC East a record nine consecutive years, but do Brady and Belichick have another Super Bowl run in them?

Out of hibernation?

Those who view the Bears as an up-and-coming team point to the Rams with the hope that new coach Matt Nagy can replicate, in short order, the kind of success Sean McVay had last season. Don’t forget the Rams weren’t the only team to come out of nowhere and put an end to a long postseason drought. Four of the six longest playoff droughts in the NFL were ended last season when the Bills (1999), Jaguars (2007) and Titans (2008) reached the tournament along with the Rams (2004).

What team is next to emerge from obscurity and play meaningful games in January? The Bears are tied with the Jets (2010) for the third-longest active playoff drought behind only the Browns (2002) and Buccaneers (2007).

Back up the Brink’s truck

It’s always a good idea to follow the money, and the next big — make that BIG — contracts are right around the corner. Matt Ryan in May became the NFL’s first $30 million-per-year player, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be in line to top that. It will be interesting to see if Rodgers can get all or the majority of his deal guaranteed, as free agent Kirk Cousins did with the Vikings in a deal that made him the league’s highest-paid player for a brief period before the Ryan contract.

READ MORE: The Bears love new coach Matt Nagy, but can he make them winners? »

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack are in line for big paydays, and both could surpass the BroncosVon Miller as the game’s highest-paid defensive player.

Gruden’s grinders

After nine seasons in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” booth, Jon Gruden is back on the sideline. It’s a different game since Gruden won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers after the 2002 season, with more restrictions on offseason work with players. Gruden is the perfect front man for the organization as it prepares for the move to Las Vegas, and in Derek Carr he has a quarterback who performed at a high level before suffering a broken leg in Week 15 of the 2016 season.

The Raiders were a mess last season and Gruden has brought in a handful of veterans, so one wonders what direction the team is headed after going 12-4 just two seasons ago. With Gruden in control, it will certainly be interesting.

Get your kicks ...

Will the new kickoff rule actually make play safer? That is the intended goal after the NFL adjusted the play, with the biggest shift being that players on the kicking team can no longer take a running start. The goal is to try to prevent as many high-speed collisions as possible and turn the kickoff into something that more closely resembles a punt. Special teams coaches are working to save this element of the game, and as the league focuses more on head injuries this is worth monitoring closely.

Showtime in Los Angeles

Are the Rams the team to beat in the NFC? They went from winning the NFC West to winning the offseason as they acquired defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. A stout defense has been made stronger, though coordinator Wade Phillips must replace linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was traded to the Giants.

The Rams extended the contract of Todd Gurley, resetting the market for running backs, and need to get a deal done for Donald. Are they prepared to handle expectations that the organization hasn’t had since The Greatest Show on Turf days in St. Louis?

Collision course

The NFL’s new helmet-contact rule has created quite a stir during the offseason, part of a sticking point in the contract staredown between first-round draft pick Roquan Smith and the Bears. How the rule is officiated during the season will be interesting.

Under the new rule, if a player lowers his head to initiate contact with an opponent, it is a 15-yard penalty with the possibility of an ejection and/or a suspension. It has created consternation for players and coaches alike, but chances are it won’t be nearly as big of an issue as some have feared.

One goal for Cleveland

When will the Browns win? Coach Hue Jackson somehow escaped firing after finishing 0-16 last season. They used the No. 1 pick in the draft on quarterback Baker Mayfield, and the Browns have nowhere to go but up, right?

They’re not going to lose 16 games again. Maybe they will collect their first victory in Week 3 against the Jets. It’s a prime-time affair in Cleveland on Thursday night — just what the country wants to see.

Packers under pressure

Are the Packers poised for a rebound? Their streak of eight consecutive years in the playoffs was snapped last season, largely because Rodgers was sidelined by injury. General manager Ted Thompson has been replaced by Brian Gutekunst, who proved to be more active in free agency. Longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers was replaced by Mike Pettine.

Now all eyes are on coach Mike McCarthy. It’s an interesting dynamic in Green Bay as the coach reports directly to team President Mark Murphy. The pressure is on McCarthy and Co.

Wishing Colts good Luck

Andrew Luck’s right shoulder is healthy again after the Colts quarterback missed all of last season. The landscape in the AFC South has changed significantly since he was last on the field.

The Jaguars broke through last season and the Texans are potentially scary with second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and the return of J.J. Watt. The Titans have a new coach in Mike Vrabel even after making the playoffs last year. Luck was a premier quarterback before he was injured. How will he perform?

bmbiggs@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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