2020 NFL schedule release: Benchmark games for nine newbies

Change is one of the notable constants each NFL season. This year, there will be one new host city, two new stadiums, five teams with new head coaches and a deep and talented pool of rookie players.

I was asked to view the schedule through a filter that highlights rookies and coaches in the first year with their teams, identifying games that stand out and matchups that reel you in. Below is the list:

Benchmark games for new coaches

Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns
Benchmark game:
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens (Week 1)

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The Browns buckled under the weight of heightened expectations last season, particularly on offense. The first opportunity to see whether the upgrades to the offensive line (in the form of veteran free agent Jack Conklin and rookie Jedrick Wills) and the addition of Stefanski, who has not decided whether he will call plays, will help the unit step up comes in Week 1 at Baltimore, where the Ravens will be hungry to get the taste of a one-and-done playoff performance out of their mouths after a 14-2 season. Baltimore represents a formidable challenge after allowing less than 18 points per game last year, third-best in the league.

Ron Rivera, Washington Redskins
Benchmark game:
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins (Week 1)

Rivera doesn’t get to ease into his new job, as Washington opens at home against the division-rival Eagles. Philadelphia has won six straight in the series, including five by at least 10 points. This is the third time in the last four seasons the ‘Skins have opened against the Eagles, losing the previous two by five and 13 points. So, welcome to town, Ron. Another game of note: Rivera will face his former team, the Carolina Panthers, on Dec. 27 at home.

Joe Judge, New York Giants
Benchmark game:
Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants (Week 1)

You’d be hard-pressed to find a "hot candidates" list that included Judge during the last hiring cycle, so it’s not a stretch to say he’ll face greater scrutiny than others in his debut with the Giants. That makes Week 1 so intriguing, because you only get one chance to make a first impression, and the Giants open at home, on national TV, in prime time, against what appears to be a strong Steelers squad that returns QB Ben Roethlisberger.

Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
Benchmark game:
Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 9)

The Panthers will help introduce the NFL to Las Vegas with a Week 1 contest against the Raiders, but their Week 9 game against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in Kansas City gets the nod due to this reason: it will pit the game’s best QB and one of its most potent offenses against a Carolina franchise that used each of its seven draft picks on defensive players this year. It was the first time in the common-draft era that a team did not select an offensive player.

Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys
Benchmark game:
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (Week 15)

A lot of attention will be paid to the season opener in Los Angeles, where the Cowboys will help christen the Rams’ new $5 billion stadium, but the Dec. 20 game against visiting San Francisco piques my interest. McCarthy was brought in to lead the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl in 25 years, and to get there, they might have to go through the 49ers, the reigning NFC champs. On another note, McCarthy was 5-5 against the 49ers during his 13 seasons in Green Bay, with three of the defeats coming in the postseason.

Benchmark games for notable rookies

OT Andrew Thomas vs. Steelers’ pass rush
Benchmark game:
Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants (Week 1)

Thomas was the first offensive lineman selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, at No. 4 overall by the New York Giants. The left tackle will be tested Week 1 in a prime-time game against Pittsburgh’s defense, which led the league with 54 sacks last season.

CB Jeff Okudah vs. WR Davante Adams
Benchmark game:
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers (Week 2)

Detroit traded top cornerback Darius Slay to the Eagles in the offseason and now is counting on Okudah, selected third overall, to lock down receivers. His first big test will come against Adams, who, over the past two seasons, averaged 97 receptions for nearly 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns. The following week, Okudah gets to face the Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald.

WR Henry Ruggs III vs. WR Jerry Jeudy
Benchmark game:
Denver Broncos at Las Vegas Raiders (Week 10)

This will be the first meeting between the AFC West rivals in 2020, and an intriguing storyline will be the play of the first-year wideouts. This was considered one of the deepest receiver drafts in recent history, prompting a lot of debate about who should be the first player off the board. The honor went to Ruggs, taken 12th overall by Las Vegas. Jeudy went three picks later to Denver. Their head-to-heads are sure to be fodder for talk radio.

QB Joe Burrow vs. QB Tua Tagovailoa
Benchmark game:
Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins (Week 13)

In a quarterback-driven league, this one could match the first two signal-callers selected in this year’s draft. Burrow, taken No. 1 overall, is the projected Day 1 starter for Cincinnati, while Tagovailoa, selected fifth overall by Miami, is expected to replace veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at some point during the year.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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