10 pivotal relationships for 2020 NFL season
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones franchise-tagged Dak Prescott. Can he lock up the QB with a long-term deal? Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

10 pivotal relationships for 2020 NFL season

Aaron Rodgers’ relationship with head coach Matt LaFleur is front-and-center in Green Bay, after the Packers moved up in the first round to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. The Packers may have drafted Love to set themselves up for the future, but their 2020 fate rests on whether Rodgers and his second-year head coach can coexist harmoniously after a draft most observers both panned and felt was a slap in the face to a future Hall of Famer. Rodgers and LaFleur aren’t alone, however. Here are 10 other key relationships that will go a long way toward defining the 2020 NFL season.

Bill O’Brien and the entire Texans team

O’Brien clashed with DeAndre Hopkins, so he shipped him out of town for Arizona’s David Johnson in a universally panned trade. The Texans drafted just one offensive skill player, Rhode Island wide receiver Isaiah Coulter, with their fifth-round — and final — pick in this year’s draft. O’Brien also got crushed by left tackle Laremy Tunsil in contract negotiations, and his popularity in Houston has never been lower despite coming off a 10-6 season. If O’Brien loses quarterback Deshaun Watson, he’ll lose the entire team, and if that happens, he might as well pack his bags.

Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs

Allen improved his play in Year 2, but he is still far from a polished quarterback. Per Pro Football Reference, only four quarterbacks had a higher bad throw percentage than Allen’s 20.3 in 2019, and his on-target throw percentage of 73.2 ranked in the bottom half of the NFL. He was, however, victimized by 31 drops, third most of any quarterback in the league. The Bills paid a heavy price for Diggs, but did they get a player who will bring the best out of Allen? Among receivers with at least 1,000 yards last year, only two had a higher drop percentage than Diggs’ 6.4. If the two bring out the best in one another, Buffalo will likely run away with the AFC East. If they don’t, the Bills offense will continue to hold them back.

Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski

There have been many diagnoses for what ailed the Browns last season, but the simplest, most straightforward one is also the most accurate: Mayfield was terrible. His 78.8 passer rating was second worst in the league among qualifying quarterbacks, and only Jameis Winston had a worse on-target throw percentage than Mayfield’s 70.6. Some of his problems can be attributed to pressure, but others focused on his inability to sense the rush and act decisively. Freddie Kitchens being in over his head didn’t help matters either. Stefanski won’t be as folksy or quotable, but he does have more coaching chops, having been part of two good seasons in a row with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota. The same positive impact on Mayfield would turn Cleveland into a real contender.

Ron Rivera and Daniel Snyder

Washington needs much more than winning on the field. The franchise is one of the laughingstocks of the NFL, has seen many local fans turn away for good and most frequently drew headlines due to a bitter feud with now-former tackle Trent Williams. Rivera is one of the NFL’s most respected head coaches, but he won’t be able to change one of the league’s most toxic cultures unless Snyder stays out of the way and lets him do his job. There is still much rebuilding to be done in Washington, but a good first step would be Snyder stepping back from the limelight and letting Rivera mold the team in his image.

Dak Prescott and Jerry Jones

Prescott’s back-and-forth negotiation with Dallas has been endless, and franchise-tagging him for this season was the latest move in a game of chicken. Jones still wants to see if his quarterback can take the franchise closer to a Super Bowl, and he has again stocked the cupboard with offensive weapons to facilitate that process, having stolen WR CeeDee Lamb with the 17th pick in last month's draft. Former Bengals QB Andy Dalton is now on board, too, but to what end? Is he merely a good insurance policy or some sort of message to Prescott? If Jones’ tactics motivate Prescott to have his best-ever season, Dallas should win the NFC East. If Prescott gets frustrated by the situation, it could be a major issue that affects the Cowboys all year long.

Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky certainly looks like a bust through three seasons, with 2019 a major letdown after a promising 2018 campaign, but Bears head coach Matt Nagy has said that he and Foles will compete for the starting job in Chicago. Foles was part of a productive quarterback room with Philadelphia in 2017 but flamed out in Jacksonville last year after an injury derailed his season. The best-case scenario is that Foles’ presence motivates the more talented Trubisky, who harnesses his full potential and leads the Bears offense to greater heights. The more realistic one is that neither man distinguishes himself — Foles, for all his Super Bowl glory, hasn’t had a great regular season since 2013 — and Chicago flounders as a result.

Tom Brady and Bruce Arians

Brady loves to throw short and carve teams up with precision, getting rid of the ball quickly to both neutralize pass rushes and mask his lack of mobility. Arians’ offense is predicated on the quarterback holding onto the football for a long time and taking repeated big shots downfield. Something must give, and if Arians is smart, he’ll be the one caving. What Tampa Bay has on paper looks tantalizing, but the combination of Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and more works in reality only if both head coach and quarterback swallow a little ego and work in harmony to ensure the offense hits the ground running. If it does go swimmingly, the Buccaneers are a good bet to make it to the Super Bowl.

Drew Lock and Jerry Jeudy

No team in the NFL intrigues me more than the Broncos. I can just as easily envision Denver floundering to a 5-11 finish as I can picture them challenging seriously for a playoff spot. What’s obvious is that they’re gambling on Lock as their quarterback. He already has Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant, but John Elway went out and got him the most NFL-ready wide receiver in this year’s class in Jeudy. Lock showed promise in going 4-1 last season, with only a snowy loss to Kansas City standing out as poor performance. If Lock and Jeudy can get on the same page quickly, the Broncos would have a group of receiving threats that could rival that of the Chiefs, and Denver would also have its quarterback of the future.

Kyle Shanahan and the rest of the NFC West

San Francisco took the division by storm last season, with a multi-faceted running attack that devastated opponents in a way that called to mind Shanahan’s father, Mike’s, success doing the same thing with the late-1990s Broncos. The Niners added WR Brandon Aiyuk to an already versatile offense, which could prove devastating. The question is whether Shanahan can continue to stay one step ahead of the rest of the division. Consider this: Four of San Francisco’s six division games were decided by five points or fewer, and a 36-26 win over the Cardinals was a down-to-the-wire affair despite the final score. The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson, Arizona now boasts DeAndre Hopkins and is a trendy playoff pick and the Rams, despite their myriad issues last season, still managed to go 9-7. San Francisco has a great roster, but it’ll need its head coach to be brilliant to stay ahead of the pack.

Cam Newton and the rest of the NFL

As of now, Newton still doesn’t have a team for the 2020 season. He has expressed his willingness to take a backup role, and presumably a drastically reduced salary that would accompany it, so two major hurdles to him signing appear now to be non-factors. Assuming he gets a clean bill of health, how will his year play out? Will he jump at the chance to secure employment if a solid offer comes around? Or will he wait until quarterbacks get hurt — possibly in-season — to ride to the rescue? Newton is just five years removed from an MVP season. The longer he goes unsigned, the more surreal his offseason gets and the more interesting the endgame becomes.

Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.

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