New faces eager to shine as league enters post-Peyton era
By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - The loss of some star power to retirement and a suspension to one of the NFL's greatest players has done little to dampen excitement for North America's favorite game ahead of a season that will mark the league's return to Los Angeles.
When the reigning champion Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl rematch on Thursday, it will kick off an NFL season unlike any seen in decades, where the only sure bet is that the league will enjoy its usual ratings bonanza.
Gone are Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch as the quartet, who have a combined 54 seasons between them, led a parade of big-name players who hung up their cleats in 2016.
As for Tom Brady, one of only three quarterbacks with four Super Bowl wins, he is serving a four-game ban as part of the "Deflategate" scandal that will force him to miss the first quarter of the regular season.
The absence of such talent leaves big shoes to fill and there are many eager to take their place, including flamboyant Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and dynamic Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, both of whose teams are among the favorites to reach February's Super Bowl in Houston.
Even a number of first-year players are expected to show their worth, most notably Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is a popular pick to be the offensive rookie of the year despite not yet playing a down in the regular season.
Elliott will need to excel starting in Week One if the Cowboys, who at $4 billion top Forbes' list of the world's most valuable sports teams, are to overcome the loss of Tony Romo and erase memories of a dreadful 2015 season.
Romo, the lifeblood of the Cowboys, suffered a broken bone in his back during the preseason and could be out of the lineup until November. The injury thrusts rookie quarterback Dak Prescott into the starting role. Continued...