The beauty of the NFL is that its openness and constant parity lend itself to bold predictions. Which rookie will morph into the next megastar? Is Tom Brady ever going to slow down? Can the New England Patriots be beaten?
With that in mind, we tried our hand at 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season. Hopefully, for the case of our viewing purposes, we are correct on at least a few of them.
1. Christian McCaffrey wins offensive rookie of the year
Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook are trendier picks, and DeShone Kizer has recently picked up steam, but McCaffrey is going to be offensive rookie of the year. With his excellent quickness and capacity to change direction on a dime – plus his tough as nails attitude – McCaffrey has everything teams covet in a young running back. As a runner, he stays low to the ground and hides behind his offensive line.
Perhaps the two most impressive components to his game during the preseason have been in the passing game. Few backs in this league are as deft catching the football as McCaffrey, something we’ve highlighted at length. Maybe more important, he has looked surprisingly comfortable in pass-protection, the area where young running backs are typically exposed. Because of it, they can’t remain on the field for three downs.
McCaffrey won’t be tasked with being an every-down guy because Jonathan Stewart is still a sturdy option. But his explosiveness as a runner, pass-catcher and on special teams will provide the Carolina offense with a dimension it has never had for Cam Newton. I’m betting on the fact that Newton will be willing to dump the ball off for the first time in his career and let a super talent like McCaffrey be the beneficiary. It will lead to more wins and rookie of the year honors for the former Stanford man.
2. Amari Cooper leads the league in receiving
Cooper, still just 23 years old, is a super talent who has made the Pro Bowl each of his first two seasons. Year No. 3 is generally the breakout season for wide receivers though, and Cooper has another gear (or four) that we haven’t seen. With a healthy Derek Carr under center and an elite offensive line protecting him, Cooper and his added muscle will have plenty of time to run his routes. Moreover, the acquisition of Marshawn Lynch in the backfield will provide a steady balance to an offense that saw former No. 1 back Latavius Murray rush for a measly 788 yards last season.
The beauty of Cooper is his ability to become a three-level guy. He can pick up the gritty yards, run the intermediate stuff and make the dazzling deep ball catch as well. With respect to Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton and Odell Beckham, Jr., look for Cooper to take a massive leap and lead the league in receiving and in turn, earn a first-team All-Pro selection.
3. Patriots FAIL to reach the Super Bowl
Everyone seems to be marking the Patriots down for a spot in this season’s Super Bowl. Naturally, Oakland will surely have a lot to say about this, as will Tennessee, Pittsburgh and perhaps a couple others. The prediction that the Patriots won’t end up in the Super Bowl is more about trends than anything else.
The Pats have compiled a “super team,” thanks to the addition of electric receiver Brandin Cooks and a lockdown cornerback in Stephon Gilmore. But don’t underestimate the loss of Julian Edelman to a torn ACL. Since 2013, Edelman’s 436 catches are 187 more than any other Patriot (Rob Gronkowski is next). Tom Brady will find a way to overcome the loss, but to dismiss it and assume someone can replace that type of production would be foolish.
Also, repeating in this league is really freaking hard. The Pats were the last to do it, back in 2004-05. One reason why it rarely happens is a weighted schedule. New England will have to play a first-place schedule that won’t let up, and it will do so without touchdown machine LeGarrette Blount, who signed with the Eagles. Again, like Edelman, Blount is a very good player and there is nobody on this roster who offers the same skill set.
4. Marcus Mariota finishes top five in MVP voting
The Titans are a trendy sleeper pick, and Mariota is the main reason why. Not only is he the best quarterback in the division – sorry Andrew Luck – Mariota has a chance to become one of the best in the entire league. The 24-year-old doesn’t so much as run, as he glides. He’s a strong presence in the pocket with a fast release. Better yet, he’s accurate and makes good decisions. Last season, while averaging a healthy 7.6 yards per attempt, Mariota never once threw a red-zone pick. In fact, the former No. 2 pick has never thrown a red-zone pick. With talented rookie Corey Davis and reliable veteran Eric Decker, as well as tight end Delanie Walker, we can expect that number to improve in Mariota’s third season.
Most striking about Mariota is the effusive praise he incessantly receives from coaches and teammates. Players respect him and his coaches trust him. The Titans should usurp Houston as AFC South winners this season, and Mariota will in turn assert himself as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
5a. DeVante Parker finishes top eight in receiving yardage …
Parker is a sensational talent who is set to put it all together in his third season. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound wideout totaled just 494 yards as a rookie. While he flashed last year, amassing 744 yards on 56 catches, Parker was hardly dominant. Part of his woes were self-induced – he is prone to the occasional drop – but we can attribute that to a lack of health more than anything. It remains to be seen if Jay Cutler is a steadying force (I believe he will be), but he and Parker have developed a synergy. Cutler loves receivers who can go up and win a 50-50 ball (think Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett).
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason, Cutler lofted a gorgeous throw to Parker, who won the jump ball and took it 72 yards. It was an instant trust builder. Parker’s sturdy frame helps him effectively embrace contact, and he’s not bothered by tight coverage either. He’s not a burner, but his long strides and sudden change ability offset any lack of top flight speed. Bottom line: Cutler’s capacity to push the ball down the field, even at 34 years old, should result in many huge plays for his young receiver.
5b. … and the Dolphins post top-eight offense for first time since 1995
No Ryan Tannehill. No problem. Head coach Adam Gase has a comfort level and confidence in Jay Cutler that will yield excellent results. Cutler will be encouraged to exercise all three levels of the field, given the assortment of weapons around him. Receiver Jarvis Landry – whose sure-handedness and after the catch ability will be on full display – is tied with Odell Beckham, Jr. for the most catches ever (288) in a player’s first three seasons. Flanking him on the perimeter is third-year man DeVante Parker, who is finally healthy and ready to live up to his immense promise as a first-round pick. Parker (see above) is a big-bodied target who can really run and should be lethal inside the 20.
However, Cutler’s favorite target might be tight end Julius Thomas, a fluid athlete who resembles the aforementioned Martellus Bennett. Of course, Bennett and Cutler’s best season came in 2014, when Bennett amassed 90 receptions to lead all tight ends. Finally, don’t sleep on Jay Ajayi. After bursting onto the scene last season with consecutive 200-yard games, the powerful running back is ready for an encore. Ayayi is fast enough to rip off long gains and tough enough to pick up third-and-short.
6. Leonard Fournette won’t crack the 750-yard mark
Ask anyone around pro football and they all say the same thing about Fournette: He’s a beast. And I’m not here to tell you any different either. I do believe, however, that the rookie running back will have his fair share of growing pains. Fournette, as physically gifted as he is, has struggled to remain healthy. At LSU, he suffered from a chronic ankle problem which caused him to miss three games just last season. Now, in his first training camp, he has once again missed time due to the same foot.
Foot injuries for running backs are like hamstring injuries for receivers: Once you have one, they tend to linger and becoming recurring. Fournette’s talent is unmistakeable. His combination of size and speed is lethal. Moreover, head coach Doug Marrone would love to keep the ball on the ground and feed Fournette. But at 22 years old, he is also the future of a Jacksonville franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since the 2007 season. In turn, expect the team to be very careful with its investment.
7. Packers miss the playoffs
The Packers are coming off a great finish to last season. Aaron Rodgers, at 33 years old, is apparently in the best shape of his career. Jordy Nelson is fully healthy and Eddie Lacy is no longer there to eat away from Ty Montgomery’s carries. But all of that won’t offset a defense that ranked 22nd overall last season. Remember, Julius Peppers returned to Carolina and versatile safety Micah Hyde signed with the Bills. As a result, the Packers defense is likely to regress and Green Bay will once again be tasked with winning a boatload of shootouts.
As special as Rodgers is, winning without even an adequate defense is a tall order. Coach Mike McCarthy also knows he needs to establish a balanced offense to avoid defenses from teeing off on Rodgers, so expect Montgomery and rookie Jamaal Williams (who has enjoyed a good camp) to get plenty of work. The Packers are certainly capable of rattling off three of four wins in a row, but a lack of consistency will plague this team all year and result in a missed postseason for the first time in nearly a decade.
8. The Jets go 0-16
This may not seem like an especially bold prediction, but then again, consider that the NFL has seen just four winless teams since 1944. The shockingly inept Jets are primed to be the fifth. After opting not to resign receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Gang Green was forced to put Quincy Enunwa, its best receiver, on injured reserve when he suffered a devastating neck injury. That leaves Robby Anderson and his 42 career catches as the Jets No. 1 option. He’s not a bad player, but that’s a joke.
It gets worse.
Quarterback Josh McCown is a backup being thrust into a starting gig, thanks to the porous play of youngsters Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. The 38-year-old McCown is an NFL-worst 2-20 as a starter since 2014. After playing for the Bears and Bucs, not all of the 20 defeats are on him, but McCown (who is better than Ryan Fitzpatrick) wasn’t exactly a world beater either. Hey, there is solace in going into full tank mode. The lowly Jets will finally have a true franchise quarterback in either Wyoming’s Josh Allen, USC’s Sam Darnold or maybe UCLA’s wunderkind Josh Rosen.
9. Carson Wentz throws for 4,500 yards, leads Eagles to playoffs
Wentz remains the talk of Philadelphia. Eagles fans have entrusted him in a way they never did with Donovan McNabb. Wentz, to be sure, endured plenty of “rookie” moments last season, including tossing nine interceptions during a six-game stretch (five losses) that ended the Eagles’ playoff hopes. Additionally, his leading receiver and close friend, Jordan Matthews, was just shipped off to Buffalo. But what separates the former No. 2 pick from most young quarterbacks is the rare ability to analyze the game.
During my preseason visit to Philly for their Dolphins game, it didn’t take long to see why Wentz is described affectionately as a “football junkie.” At 24 years old, he prepares more like a 34-year-old. Wentz prides himself on identifying where to place his protection and what play to check into as much or more as throwing a good ball. With quality tackles on both sides, along with the addition of red-zone monster Alshon Jeffery and speed demon Torrey Smith (both of whom have played well in preseason), expect a more polished player under center in Philly. For a player like Wentz, having 16 starts under his belt makes all the difference.
10. Cowboys finish last in NFC East
Yes, Ezekiel Elliott is that good. Bottom line: Dallas doesn’t have another player as explosive and game-breaking as Elliott. The NFC East is a rugged pinball machine and the Cowboys are not good enough to offset the six-game suspension to the reigning rushing champ (though, his appeal has yet to be ruled on). Dak Prescott, last season’s offensive rookie of the year, will have to take a considerable leap for the Cowboys – owners of a brutal first-place schedule – to reach double-digit wins. Is he capable? Yes. But remember that for as good a year as Prescott had, he was asked to protect the football and not take a ton of chances down the field. A healthy Dez Bryant will certainly help Prescott, but assuming Dak doesn’t become Drew Brees overnight, the Cowboys are going to miss the playoffs.
Podcast: NFL season preview! It’s here!
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