When the season starts, plenty of eyes will be focused on the New England Patriots as usual.
Only this time it will be to see how 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton fares replacing three-time MVP and six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady at quarterback.
Newton is far from the only player dealing with big shoes to fill this season as a series of trades, free agent signings and retirements opened up some massive holes at jobs that had been filled by stars for years.
Not surprisingly some of the biggest focus is at quarterback with Teddy Bridgewater tasked with replacing Newton in Carolina after the No. 1 pick in 2011 had a nine-year run as starter for the Panthers.
Philip Rivers started 224 consecutive regular-season games for the Chargers before leaving to sign with Indianapolis as a free agent. The Chargers now will turn to veteran Tyrod Taylor or first-round rookie Justin Herbert to take over for the reliable Rivers.
Brady had the longest run of all the QBs on the move, taking over as the starter with the Patriots a decade before Newton made his debut in 2011. He started 283 regular-season games over that span, missing only 15 games in 2008 with a knee injury and four more because of suspension at the start of the 2016 season.
But he couldn’t agree on a new deal with New England and signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay, clearing the way for Newton’s arrival.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection who was the league’s top player in 2015, Newton remains the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdowns rushing by a quarterback. He’s been hampered by shoulder and foot injuries the past two seasons but should offer a different look than the more stationary Brady did the past two decades.
“I’m never shocked with anything we do as a Patriots organization,” defensive back Devin McCourty said last month on the podcast he hosts with his twin brother and fellow Patriots defensive back, Jason. “I feel like everything we do is always in the thought process of trying to win and win championships. I think that’s what it comes down to, trying to make the team better. I’m never surprised when we’re trying to do that.”
Here are some other situations where some high-profile stars will need to be replaced in their old homes this season:
BIG PLAY RECEIVERS
Two of the most prominent non-QBs to change teams came in trades back in March with Houston dealing DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona and Minnesota sending Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. That left big holes for the Texans and Vikings.
Houston tried to fill that void by trading with the Rams for Brandin Cooks. While Hopkins was one of the league’s most prolific receivers in recent years, Cooks is coming off one of his least productive seasons with just 42 catches for 583 yards while dealing with a pair of concussions.
The Vikings went younger to find Diggs’ replacement, drafting LSU’s Justin Jefferson 22nd overall to team with Adam Thielen. Jefferson had 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 TDs last season.
IN THE TRENCHES
Two of the most dependable offensive linemen of the past decade called it quits this offseason with Baltimore eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshall Yanda and San Francisco six-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley each retiring.
The Ravens will have a wide-open competition to replace Yanda with free agent D.J. Fluker, mid-round draft picks Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson and returning players Ben Powers and Patrick Mekari all in the mix.
The Niners stumbled into a perfect replacement for Staley when they were able to trade for seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams from Washington following a long contract standoff. Williams has played for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and should be able to make a seamless transition for the defending NFC champions.
Two of the game’s top defensive players in recent years also need to be replaced.
Five-time All-Pro and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly retired at age 28, leaving a big void at linebacker in Carolina. The Panthers signed Tahir Whitehead after he was cut following two less-than-impressive seasons with the Raiders.
Denver must replace cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who developed into one of the game’s top slot defenders during his nine seasons with the Broncos. Harris signed with the division rival Chargers. Bryce Callahan, who missed last season with a foot injury, will be counted on in the slot, while A.J. Bouye was acquired from Jacksonville to bolster the outside.
RUN TO DAYLIGHT
Todd Gurley was supposed to be the foundation of the offense for the Rams when he signed a four-year, $60 million extension with Los Angeles in 2018, after winning the Offensive Player of the Year award the previous season. But Gurley was cut this offseason before that extension even kicked in.
Gurley ran for a career-low 857 yards last season but still leaves a void on a team that relies heavily on the running game and play-action passing.
Second-round rookie Cam Akers and 2019 third-round pick Darrell Henderson will likely share the rushing load, along with Malcolm Brown.
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