The first game of the 2016 season is only two days away and so I tried to predict everything coming up, starting with the top three candidates for each NFL award, the seedings for both the AFC and NFC, the Super Bowl matchup and a couple of other predictions.
Most Valuable Player:
1 Aaron Rodgers
2 Eli Manning
3 Russell Wilson
After having his worst season since his first year as a starter, Rodgers gets his favorite target in Jordy Nelson back, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams each move a step back on the depth chart and Eddie Lacy will have more of the quickness back he had before turning into Cheeseburger Eddie. The two-time MVP Rodgers will spread the ball around and lead a team to dominate a large part of the competition.
Everybody knows what the Giants’ problem in recent years was – the defense. With the free-agent trio of Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison coming to the Big Apple at least some pressure should be off Eli’s shoulders, while he will still command one of the more explosive passing attacks in the league featuring Odell Beckham Jr., rookie Sterling Shephard and a hopefully healthy Victor Cruz.
Seattle might not have the status they had the last couple of starts to the season heading into this year, but it has kind of the feel it had in 2013 when they took home the Lombardi behind a number one defense and the bully-mentality best illustrated by Beast Mode. I think the defense will still be superior and Russell Wilson will pick up right where he left off when he threw for 24 touchdowns compared to only one interception. As long as the offensive line holds up to some degree he’ll be able to work his magic.
Honorable mention – Antonio Brown:
Since this is a quarterback award I didn’t put Brown up with the top three, especially considering he wasn’t even one of the finalists last year after putting up monster numbers without Big Ben for a quarter of the season. He straight up made defenses look foolish and just for good measure added a punt return touchdown. That guy’s balling and he should definitely be in the conversation if he can replicate his success in 2015.
Offensive Player of the Year:
1 Antonio Brown
2 David Johnson
3 Eli Manning
Since I think this award makes not a ton of sense because the most valuable player pretty much always is the best offensive or defensive player, I’ll make this short.
I just told you what I think of AB, David Johnson has a good chance to use his skill set to lead the league in yards from scrimmage and Eli and the Giants’ offense will throw the ball a lot.
Defensive Player of the Year:
1 Aaron Donald
2 Tyrann Mathieu
3 J.J. Watt
Together with Luke Kuechly and Khalil Mack those three names should have been up for DPOY last season as well.
Donald is an unbelievable penetrator both against the run and pass. His quickness is unheard of at the defensive tackle position and he has the power to counter that ability and push guards around, who always are on their toes. Even though he won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 I thought he was one of the most underrated players in the league last year. A bunch of people might think he’s just a top five D-tackle, but I have him as one of my top five overall players heading into this season. (See on my NFL Top 100 list)
While Donald and Watt fight for the title of the most disruptive defensive lineman in football, to me there’s no debate about who the top overall defensive back is. The Honeybadger’s game is so complete – he can cover number two’s all day long, he can drop deep and defend homerun shots, he’s a great blitzer and most of all – he’s tough as nails. He’ll be extremely motivated to come back and have another great season.
This wouldn’t be a conversation without the man who took the award home three out of the last four years. Watt’s dominance over that period has been so historic we already take it for granted that he wrecks people’s gameplans and we don’t give a lot of other 3-4 defensive ends the love they deserve because of him. With the Texans offense adding a new franchise QB and a lot more explosiveness Watt might actually have the chance to rush against teams who have to come back on them finally. Let’s just hope his back is right.
Honorable mentions – Von Miller and Khalil Mack:
The Super Bowl MVP just got paid big and will show once again he can shut down opponents passing games as the premier edge rusher in the game. Pushing for that title is Khalil Mack, who will move to defensive end more permanently and get the chance to even improve on his 15 sacks from last year.
Coach of the Year:
1 Bruce Arians
2 Bill O’Brien
3 Ben McAdoo
This award can be won by fulfilling different criteria and while a lot of coaches took home the award by getting their team to overachieve Arians could take what I think is the most talented team in the NFL to minimalize mistakes and have their loss number at three or lower. The offense is loaded with a trio of exceptional pass catchers, a complete back who’s coming into his own in David Johnson and a quarterback in Carson Palmer, who can command this troop behind the best offensive line Arizona has had in about a decade. On the defensive side of the ball they have the two best defensive backs in football, a nice rotation of defensive linemen and a much improved pass rush.
As I just talked about when speaking of the support J.J. Watt will get from the offense it will be O’Brien run-based offense with the ability to suck up defenses on play-action and throw the ball over their head that will lead Houston to new heights. As long as the reigning DPOY is healthy and their entire defense is still in second half of 2015 – form they can be one of the top seeds in the AFC and maybe surpass the second round of the playoffs.
With the Giants’ firepower on offense and a defense the front organization tried to fix with money this club could easily reach 10+ wins and make it to the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl win in 2011. With Eli having played his best two statistical seasons under McAdoo and the possibility of free agent Olivier Vernon building one of the best edge rushing duos in the league with Jason Pierre-Paul Big Blue could head into the postseason as something other than an underdog since a while now.
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
1 Ezekiel Elliott
2 Sterling Shephard
3 Derrick Henry
I know I’m not going much off the radar with Elliott, but hey – he was the number four overall pick and he runs behind the best offensive line in football. Especially with Dak Prescott starting out the year the Cowboys will rely heavily on Elliott carrying the load while his quarterback also showed a lot of potential to give the offense some balance. He will compete for the rushing title in his rookie campaign already.
On an offense that is going to throw the ball a ton Shephard looks like the clear-cut number two receiver. With defenses spending most of their attention on Odell Beckham Jr. the former Oklahoma Sooner will have lots of opportunities to make himself available and while he might not be the fastest one out there he is outstanding after the catch.
I feel like the Titans rushing attack could be a thing to really look out for. They have three former first-rounders and picked up Ben Jones to bring stability to the center position. Although DeMarco Murray right now is number one on the depth chart I feel like it’s going to be Henry hardnosed running style that coach Mike Mularkey wants to be the identity of his offense with Murray being the guy to take advantage of tired defenses and using his speed to run by them.
Honorable mention – Michael Thomas:
Drew Brees has never had a real favorite target other than Jimmy Graham for about three years. He likes to spread the ball around and Thomas brings some of the box-out, win on 50:50-ball mentality that Graham had. He shined in preseason and should be an important asset to their passing game.
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
1 Noah Spence
2 Myles Jack
3 Vernon Hargreaves
As much as I agree to the majority when it comes to the Offensive Rookie of the Year, I’m going a little off of the map with two of these candidates.
When it comes to edge rushers I don’t think anybody will make as many big plays as Spence. He was basically unblockable at the Senior Bowl and has the will to show he’s learned from his mistakes and is ready to be a terror off the edge. He and Gerald McCoy might give this defense some pass rush boost they lacked in recent years to take the next step as a defense.
After sliding to the second round because of teams being concerned about his knee, Jack is hungry. He is one of the most athletic linebackers who’s come in the league and can do a lot of different things. He’s excellent in man coverage, can drop deep, attack downhill and chase ball-carriers all over the field.
Hargreaves best asset is his ability to break on the ball. But at the same time his football IQ is extremely high and has a feel for the game. In Tampa’s system he will have loads of opportunities to make plays on passes and could make a similar impact as Marcus Peters. He could also stack up some big tackles numbers with his run support skills.
Honorable mention – Robert Nkemdiche:
Nkemdiche had the potential to be the first player off the board in this year’s draft if not for some of the off-the-field concerns and a lack of consistent technique and motor. I think he came into the perfect situation with a coach like Bruce Arians, who knows what it’s like to handle adversity. Now with Chandler Jones on the outside and with a great mentor in Calais Campbell he could finally be able to play to his upside. When this monster starts to unleash his power there’ll be a lot of people in trouble.
Comeback Player of the Year:
1 Andrew Luck
2 Jordy Nelson
3 Keenan Allen
After an injury-filled 2015 season Luck was paid big and now will show he’s worth it. With his tight-end Dwayne Allen also making a comeback and a bunch of other young pass-catchers like T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett this Colts offense is primed for a big season. The front office finally realized they had to invest in their offensive line to protect their franchise quarterback which should help keeping him upright and providing him with some ground game to keep defenses honest.
With the reascent of Aaron Rodgers as the premier passer in the NFL he will once again make Nelson his favorite target. He’ll catch his signature sideline balls and make people look silly when he cuts it back to the middle. I could easily see him crack 1400 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns again.
Before Allen went down with an injury after the first half of last year’s season he was top three in both receptions and yards. Even with some of the additions to the Chargers defense he is still the number one target for Philip Rivers. Coach McCoy wants to have more balance to the offense, but I have no doubt Allen will get his touches, as he will compete for the most catches in the league.
Notable mention – Terrell Suggs:
T-Sizzle is not quite ready to hand young C.J. Mosley the reigns of this defense. He is still one of very best at setting the edge and keeping contain, while he is very crafty with his pass rush skills to be able to overcome some of the losses of explosiveness.
1 Pittsburgh Steelers
2 Houston Texans
3 New England Patriots
4 Kansas City Chiefs
5 Denver Broncos
6 Baltimore Ravens OR Oakland Raiders
Even with Le’Veon Bell missing the first three games of the season and speedster Martavis Bryant also being suspended for the entire year I think the offense will be gangbusters. With Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey back in the lineup, a healthy Ben Roethlisberger and the best receiver in football they are primed for success. Uncommonly for the Steelers the defense has been their weak spot for a couple of years now. If rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis can make an impact early on and linebacker Ryan Shazier plays up to his potential combined with one of the top 3-4 defensive end duos in the NFL the defense should be able to do enough to prevent opposing offenses from being able to keep up with their own offensive attack.
If the Texans can win the AFC South with four different starting quarterbacks and minimal overall offensive production they could be scary this season. Even though their entire division became better Houston was the most complete team outside of the quarterback position. They have a very talented group of young receivers, which is led by All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins, and a new backfield including Brock Osweiler, who last year showed he’s ready to take command, and the speedy Lamar Miller, who can make things happen outside but is also vastly underrated in his ability to pound it between the tackles.
Kansas City went on a historical run last season when they finished the year with 11 straight wins before being knocked out by New England in the Divisional Playoffs. The willingness of Alex Smith to push the ball more down the field and to use his legs to keep drives alive gave the team enough to overcome the loss of Jamaal Charles. If the runningback finds back to his all-time leading yards per carry – form and Justin Houston returns to the field soon and once again is a terror off the edge the Chiefs could win a lot of games not just after six weekends.
The Patriots have consistently been one of the top two seeds in the AFC for a number of years now, but they and Tom Brady’s fill-in Jimmy Garappolo have a tough ask over the first quarter of the season. They open up at Arizona, against Miami, Houston and Buffalo. I just can’t see them finishing better than 2-2 during that span. When Brady comes back they could certainly win up to ten games, but I’m not sure if that will be enough to give them enough to clinch a first round bye. Chandler Jones was their only true edge rusher before they traded him away and the offensive line has to play better as well.
The reigning NFL champions now named a second-year quarterback who they selected in the seventh round as their starter. That usually doesn’t bring a lot of enthusiasm. Yet general manager John Elway has built a roster that isn’t much dependent on the QB position and head coach Gary Kubiak runs a very QB-friendly offense. The defense lost a couple of pieces, but their No Fly zone has all their main contributors coming back, Brandon Marshall still controls their middle and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller was just inked to a huge deal. My biggest question mark is the offensive line, but if they can run the ball and help the unit out with play-fakes they could once again overcome their struggles at the most important position on the field. I’m also curious to see if Paxton Lynch cracks the lineup at some point.
Both the Ravens and Raiders have a lot of upside and so I wasn’t quite ready to decide between the two.
Baltimore has the best general manager in football called Ozzie Newsome who continually improves and restructures their roster. They had so many starters on IR last year I can’t even name them all in this article. The most important guys coming back are their leaders on both sides of the ball – Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs. Newsome has surrounded their quarterback with new weapon Mike Wallace, Steve Smith Sr. will play his final season and last year’s first round pick Breshad Perriman will finally see the field for them. They added Eric Weddle to bring some more leadership to their defensive backfield.
On the other side the Raiders have relived a renaissance when they drafted Khalil Mack in the first round in 2014 followed up by Derek Carr in the second. After that they made some excellent moves both in the draft and in free agency. The have improved at every position group since then and now guys on every level that can make plays. I like their wide receiver duo in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in combination with the development of their quarterback. I also like the additions of Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith in the secondary, plus outside linebacker Bruce Irvin. I’m just not sure if it all comes together for them already this year. I haven’t been very impressed by what I’ve seen from them in preseason.
1 Arizona Cardinals
2 Green Bay Packers
3 Carolina Panthers
4 New York Giants
5 Seattle Seahawks
6 Minnesota Vikings
As I said earlier I think the Cardinals have the best overall team and roster in football right now. The offense will use the versatility of sophomore back David Johnson and a deep and talented receiving group to carve up opposing defenses. On the defensive side of the ball their best player – the Honeybadger – comes back from injury and they improved on their biggest weakness, which was the pass rush department. Let’s just hope Carson Palmer finds a way to carry his regular season play into the playoffs.
With the return of Jordy Nelson and a slimmer version of Eddie Lacy the Packers offense should already be immensely improved. Jordy stretches the field by working the sidelines and gives Aaron Rodgers a true number one target. If Lacy finds back to his 2014 form opponents will be in trouble. On defense they move Clay Matthews to his natural position on the outside with two young bucks holding down the middle. Green Bay has quietly put together one of the most talented young defensive back units in the league and it will be the combination of putting pressure on opposing QBs and playmaking in the secondary that will give the Pack’s offense a lot of opportunities.
I just don’t quite see the Panthers winning as many close games as they did last season. At the same time I don’t think Cam Newton will return to his MVP form. With that being said don’t sleep on this team. They get the big pass-catcher Kelvin Benjamin back after missing the 2015 campaign with injury and Devin Funchess will come into his own combining for a nice triplet of big pass catchers in combination with tight-end Greg Olsen. Even though All-Pro corner Josh Norman was pretty much released from the team Luke Kuchly, Thomas Davis, Kawann Short and Co. will be just fine as their scheme simply doesn’t rely that heavily on the cornerback position.
Big Blue is the favorite for the East crown simply because they have the best quarterback-receiver combo and on paper the best defense. Olivier Vernon is one of the more underrated edge rushers out there, but the Giants knew what they had when they signed him. The additions of Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison immediately improve their pass and run defense. If Eli plays at the MVP-calibre form that I expect him to spreading the ball around and with some help from the ground game the sky’s the limit for them.
Seattle will once again be a very dangerous wild-card team. Russell Wilson will take more command of the offense like he did in the second half of last season while he has a nice trio of ball-carriers taking over for Marshawn Lynch. Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael should form a viable one-two-punches while C.J. Prosise adds a different asset with his receiving skills. The defense has been number one in scoring for four straight years and they only have one starter not back in the line-up (Bruce Irvin). I love the motor and versatility of Michael Bennett up front and whoever emerges as a part of the Legion of Boom will have success because they are so balanced all around. My only real concern is the offensive line.
I’m happy I finished this article just now and not a couple of days ago when the Vikings had Shaun Hill penciled in as their starter heading into the season. Sam Bradford fits Norv Turner’s style way better with a big arm and some fast young wideouts on the perimeter. Add the best running back of the last decade in Adrian Peterson not showing any signs of age and you have a good offense to complement a top five defense. Minnesota’s D shines with a lot of talent at all levels especially on the outside with Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Mackensie all being top three at the position in their respective draft class just waiting to take over for the vets.
Super Bowl matchup:
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals
In a rematch of Super Bowl XLIII the Cardinals once again are led by an aging quarterback and a strong defense. Only this time the Birds have a much more balanced offense and a true shutdown corner to match up with Antonio Brown. On the other side the Steelers are now carried by their offense and not their defense. Big Ben spreads the ball around better than he did seven years ago and he has one of the elite running backs in the league. This game would be a lot of fun.
AFC South will combine for a total of 10 more wins – I have the Texans finishing as the number two seed in the AFC, the Colts will add a couple of wins simply because they have their guy in Andrew Luck back, Jacksonville is a sexy playoff name with a gangbuster offense and some nice young pieces on defense and the Titans will have way more success as a ground-and-pound club with an enormous talent in Marcus Mariota at the helm.
The number of 1000 yard rushers will double up – Last year there were only seven 1000 yard rushers in the league. I expect that number to be twice as high simply because of these seven names: David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Lamar Miller, Eddie Lacy, Carlos Hyde and Melvin Gordon. And I didn’t even include rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry.
No team in the league will sweep their divison – When I look for all the teams’ names I just feel like almost all of them have improved from where they were last year. Only a couple of them I would say are in a rebuilding season and there are so many great players coming back from injury. So I just don’t see any team completely dominating their division.