A look at the likely candidates for the NFL’s 2014 awards and some of the story lines that will crop up during the season:
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers QB
2. Drew Brees, Saints QB
3. Peyton Manning, Broncos QB
Note: Expect Rodgers to be the catalyst for a very strong Packers season. But if Denver cruises to another 13- or 14-win season and Manning surpasses 50 TD passes again, it could be difficult to deny him a sixth MVP.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Peyton Manning, Broncos QB
2. Drew Brees, Saints QB
3. Adrian Peterson, Vikings RB
Note: This is an award where Manning’s gaudy numbers dwarf all others.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. J.J. Watt, Texans DL
2. Richard Sherman. Seahawks CB
3. Darrelle Revis, Patriots CB
Note: With Jadeveon Clowney also occupying blockers, Watt should be even more disruptive to quarterbacks this year.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Brandin Cooks, Saints WR
2. Sammy Watkins, Bills WR
3. Eric Ebron, Lions TE
Note: Cooks has an elite QB throwing to him and is one of many options defenders have to be aware of. That should allow him to post impressive numbers, and gives him a big edge on Watkins.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Ryan Shazier, Steelers LB
2. Jadeveon Clowney, Texans DL
3. Darqueze Dennard, Bengals CB
Note: Shazier looks like the next great Steelers linebacker, and will impress many with his quickness and his nose for the football.
Comeback Player of the Year
1. Julio Jones, Falcons WR
2. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots TE
3. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles WR
Note: Jones caught 41 passes in just five games before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. He should return to that pace and a Pro Bowl production level.
Coach of the Year
1. Marc Trestman, Bears
2. Chip Kelly, Eagles
3. Sean Payton, Saints
Note: The Bears are bound for the playoffs, and Trestman (whom the Bears hired out of the Canadian Football League) will be honored for their rise.
Assistant Coach of the Year (new AP award this year)
1. Rob Ryan, Saints defensive coordinator
2. Matt Patricia, Patriots defensive coordinator
3. Adam Gase, Broncos offensive coordinator
Note: The Patriots’ climb back among the top 10 defenses will draw recognition for Patricia. But Ryan’s stout defense may win him a look for a head coaching position.
Non-QB MVP candidates
1. Darrelle Revis, Patriots CB
2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings RB
3. Calvin Johnson, Lions WR
Note: Rarely does someone other than a quarterback win. But Revis’s arrival changes the dynamic — and the production — of the Patriots defense and gives them a defensive weapon other teams must avoid.
Most surprising teams
1. Tampa Bay: Lovie Smith brought a winning attitude into the building. With a talented defense and a savvy veteran quarterback in Josh McCown, the Bucs may end up as this year’s surprise playoff qualifier.
2. Houston: Despite having Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB, the defense — and the other parts of the offense — are so talented that the Texans could rise from 2-14 to playoff contender.
3. Washington: Jay Gruden’s confidence should be a disinfectant for the sourness that hung over the franchise at the end of the Mike Shanahan era.
Most disappointing teams
1. Cincinnati: All that money the Bengals invested in Andy Dalton, and he goes out and misses the playoffs for the first time.
2. NY Giants: The Giants have too much talent to miss the playoffs in three straight seasons. But that’s what they’re headed for this year.
3. Atlanta: The championship window for this roster core is closing fast. The Falcons may have missed their best shot in the 2012 NFC title game.
Coaches on the hot seat
1. Tom Coughlin: Does a coach who’s won two of the last eight Super Bowls get fired? Probably not fired in a headline-grabbing way. But Coughlin, 68, will be off to retirement if the Giants have another bad year.
2. Rex Ryan: If he doesn’t make the playoffs, it will mark four straight years without a postseason berth for the Jets. Few coaches could survive such a run.
3. Dennis Allen: The Raiders coach is perhaps the surest bet not to be back next season.
Teams you don’t want to play in December
1. Jacksonville: The defense should be playing with Gus Bradley’s intimidating style and Blake Bortles should be the starter on a team out to prove it will be dangerous in 2015.
2. New England: Sure, they may already have the AFC East sown up by then, but the Patriots — 51-7 in December since 2001 — are a bad matchup if you need a win to clinch a playoff berth.
3. Pittsburgh: The Steelers, with their pounding defense and their grind-it-out run game, are a team built to win bad-weather games in the year’s final month.
Teams atop the 2015 NFL Draft order
1. St. Louis
Note: The Rams will once again be looking for a new quarterback, while Jerry Jones begins a new search to make the Cowboys serious contenders.