The release of the 2020 NFL schedule allows the shape of each team's season to come into view -- and reveals when we can anticipate the most compelling individual-level matchups. Chris Wesseling zeroes in on the top showdowns to watch.
Week 1: Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals vs. Derwin James, S, Chargers
Welcome to the NFL, Heisman hero. Here's a matchup against a sneaky loaded defense featuring a versatile defensive back with Troy Polamalu's timing on blitzes. OK, I'm bending the rules. As much fun as it might be to watch James stalking fresh quarterback prey, the headliner is Burrow vs. Justin Herbert in a clash of putative franchise saviors. This is a measuring-stick matchup not only for the two high draft picks but also for each of the superstar-starved fanbases.
Weeks 1, 16: George Kittle, TE, 49ers vs. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Cardinals
Even with a bum knee, Kittle stiff-armed his way through Arizona's secondary, lifting San Francisco to victory in a 28-25 Halloween-night thriller last year. Faced with the prospect of containing one of the NFL's best players twice every season for the foreseeable future, the Cardinals drafted a linebacker/safety hybrid assembled by the football gods to thwart athletic tight ends in a pass-heavy era.
Week 3: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Chiefs vs. Patrick Queen, LB, Ravens
A pair of former LSU teammates square off in an early season showdown between the two AFC favorites. Coach Andy Reid has favorably compared Edwards-Helaire to former Eagles star Brian Westbrook, who was often the best player on the field during the prime of his career. Patrick Mahomes' offense was already a pick-your-poison assignment for linebackers. Now they have to stomach a belladonna scatback after choking on hemlock Hill and strychnine Kelce. Fortunately for the Ravens, their biggest draft need at inside linebacker just happened to coincide with the best player on the board when they scooped up Queen for occasions such as this one.
Week 4: Jeff Okudah, CB, Lions vs. Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
The 2020 draft's consensus top cover specialist will be tested early against fellow Buckeyes legend Thomas. Although Okudah offers prototypical size at 6-foot-1 and more than 200 pounds, he's never dealt with the physicality of a record-breaking receiver such as Thomas, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Week 4: Chase Young, Edge, Redskins vs. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Ravens
Speaking of Ohio State stars, the draft's most ballyhooed pass rusher draws a first-team All Pro at left tackle in Stanley. Will Young find a way to slow down MVP Lamar Jackson, or will the Ravens make the rookie pay for sins of over-aggression by running their league-best ground attack right through his shoulders?
Week 5: Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers vs. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, Edge, Bears
Contrary to the claims of his staunchest advocates, Brady's own physical decline factored into his suddenly slumping offense in 2019. The greatest 43-year-old of all time isn't going to move as well as he did when he was the greatest 40-year-old of all time. If he has a clean pocket, though, Brady can still pick on the right targets in the right situations. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs and his cohorts up front will have their hands full versus Mack and his new sidekick, the rejuvenated Quinn.
Weeks 8, 16: Stefon Diggs, WR, Bills vs. Stephon Gilmore, CB, Patriots
After watching their receivers struggle to separate versus tight man coverage, the Bills paid a steep price to Minnesota to acquire one of the premier route runners in the business. Diggs tended to wear his frustration on his sleeve when Vikings QB Kirk Cousins grew gun-shy downfield. If he manages to spring free versus the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he can count on Josh Allen to pull the trigger. If the previous two years are any indication, he can also count on those bullets to be scattershot in nature.
Week 9: AJ Dillon, RB, Packers vs. Javon Kinlaw, DT, 49ers
Can the Packers turn the tables on the 49ers? Matt LaFleur watched mentor Kyle Shanahan dial up just eight pass plays versus 42 rushes in a juggernaut ground attack that dashed Green Bay's Super Bowl hopes minutes into last season's anti-climactic NFC Championship Game. Intent on establishing a passing game that flows through the running game, LaFleur and his front office drafted the biggest, baddest back available in 250-pound hammer Dillon. Will that be enough to shift the winds against a dominant front seven that replaced 2018 Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner with rookie Kinlaw?
Weeks 10, 17: Jerry Jeudy, WR, Broncos vs. Damon Arnette, CB, Raiders
The Raiders had their choice of Alabama receivers with the draft's No. 12 pick. They opted for the speed demon instead of the master craftsman, leaving Jeudy for Denver. The Raiders also had a shot at free agency's top cornerback, only to lose a bidding war with Miami for Byron Jones. Licking those wounds, they settled for Ohio State's Arnette, one of the this draft's most surprising selections at No. 19 overall. How will those two first-round decisions look after a couple of bouts with their AFC West rivals?
Weeks 13, 17: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Cardinals vs. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Rams
In terms of acrobatics and ball skills, this has been the isolation matchup to watch over the past few years. The last time these All-Pro talents battled it out, Ramsey had a sideline meltdown that ultimately led to his trade demand out of Jacksonville. Following Hopkins' own trade from Houston to Arizona in March, these old AFC South foes are back in the same division. Which hired gun is quickest in the West?