Like every year before the new season starts I give my predictions for all the major awards, playoff teams and Super Bowl match-up. You might want to check out the playoff standings in comparison to MVP and Coach of the Year candidates, since a team’s record is the major indicator for the impact those men have on their franchise’s success. If you’re interested in how I came up with the playoff teams, you can check out the full schedule for this upcoming season, in which I predicted every single game, considering the location of each contest, the time off for the opponent, specific match-ups and more. (Yes, I’m a freak.)
Most Valuable Player:
Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson
I have the Packers finishing as the number one seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record, despite a defense with question-marks, one of the top free agent guards out the door and a starting running-back, who still wore number 88 a season ago. Even though I think the defense will play a more opportunistic style with many contributors back from injury and I like Montgomery plus some of those rookie backs in Green Bay, the fortunes of their franchise lay in the hands of one Aaron Rodgers. His ability to manipulate the opposition, extend plays to the fullest and fire lasers all over the field will be on display each and every week. The addition of Marty B in free agency will pay off immensely in my opinion, since he is the best tight-end Rodgers has probably ever had and I think the Packers QB will repay the ten-year vet with a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Rodgers will be challenged by another number 12, who just won his fifth ring. Brady turned 40 years old about a week ago and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. More importantly, the Pats added speedster Brandin Cooks, a couple of different backs and one of the greatest tight-ends of all time, even though he’s been on the roster for a while now. If Gronk is healthy and all those weapons play their role, their QB has the potential to challenge a couple major records for a season. Not only will Brady produce big numbers, the defense which was already ranked number one in points allowed, improved as well and the team should blow out half their opponents. That’s the only real concern I have with the Pats’ signal-caller. Will he even have the chance to match the numbers that other guy in Wisconsin puts up? If that’s the only question mark you should be happy though.
I couldn’t really decide between Bell and Johnson, because they are both such great all-around players. I could easily see them flirt with that 2500 yards from scrimmage mark. No kidding. They will average around 25-30 touches a game and challenge each other with new marks every week. Bell will have the advantage of leading his team to a second overall seed in the AFC according to my predictions, while DJ will also carry his Cards to a playoff berth, but less likely help them get a first round bye. Where Johnson has the upper hand in my opinion is the number of touchdowns he will score, since he is a bigger body and doesn’t have anybody taking away many goal-line carries, while the Steelers back might give up some of those to rookie and fan favorite James Conner. The advantage Bell has, is the fact his offensive line of the best in the league, while Arizona’s ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack at best.
Defensive Player of the Year:
Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Tyrann Mathieu
Aaron Donald is the league’s least talked about superstar. I had him ranked as the fifth best overall player in the NFL, while his peers had him at number 15 on the NFL Top 100 countdown. With J.J. Watt out for most of the season, the Rams All-Pro defensive tackle was clearly the most disruptive force on the interior. His combination of quickness and power is unmatched. Statistics don’t nearly describe the impact he has on opposing gameplans. Donald can break through the line and take down ball-carriers on any given snap, but it’s the plays where he doesn’t come up with the tackle or sack, that really make him a star. Like putting a hit on the QB when he tries to get rid of the ball, leading to balls hitting the turf, or quick-swimming his blocker and forcing the running back to cut back and run into the arms of a teammate. I hope he finally gets the credit he deserves with a trophy to show for it next February.
Right behind Donald, I have the guy who I thought should have won the award the night before the Super Bowl. Miller is a one-man wrecking crew who puts fear into the eyes of opposing signal callers. There is nobody out there who is better at speeding around the edge and bending at ridiculous angles to keep offensive tackles from getting a hand on his chest. After being beat a couple of times, many blockers make the mistake of playing high and turn their shoulders too quickly after the sack, which leads to them being driven back into their QB by Miller, whose power, especially off that initial burst is really underrated. But not only is the Broncos linebacker the best pure edge-rusher right now, he is far above average in terms of stopping the run and dropping into coverage for a 3-4 outside linebacker. It’s kind of crazy to think about Miller not having received those honors at this point, but I’m sure he wouldn’t trade his Super Bowl MVP for it.
When healthy, Tyrann Mathieu to me is the best defensive back in all of football. He is unbelievably versatile in terms of where he lines up before plays and where he ends up after the snap. He is one of the elite nickelbacks, he’s a fearless blitzer, he has the recovery speed to make plays on the sidelines after sitting in between the hashes, he’s just unlike any other player out there. After putting up an All-Pro season two years ago, the Honeybadger played banged up for most of last season and saw a massive drop in his production. With a full offseason of recovery and getting back to full speed, I see him making plays all over the field and be in the running for DPOY over the course of the season. He is a guy who can put up five interceptions, three or four sacks, double-digit TFLs and still won’t have those numbers match up to his impact on games.
Darkhorse Candidate: Ryan Shazier
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Evan Engram
Much like Ezekiel Elliott, I think this year’s RB picked fourth overall will compete for the league’s rushing title. The major disadvantage Fournette has is his offensive line compared to what Dallas has. The reason I still think LSU’s star back will put up big numbers is the fact I had him rated even better than Zeke. That guy is an absolute freak-show with all the speed and power he possesses. It also helps that Elliott will more likely than not miss the first six games of the regular season, eliminating Fournette’s number one competition for finishing as the rushing champ. The Jaguars will lean heavily on their rookie runner, despite rumors they want him sharing touches with Chris Ivory and T.J,. Yeldon. Yeah, sure. With the question-marks at quarterback, see Blake Bortles who seemingly has forgotten how to throw a football properly, the “human battering ram” will have to carry his team for most of the year.
Reports I do believe more strongly in are related to Dalvin Cook earning the starting RB job for the Vikings. Latavius Murray is pretty good and he will still touch the ball quite a bit, especially close to the goal-line, but I don’t think this will be a one-two punch. Cook’s talent level is just too high. I don’t really know anything about the people he hangs with or used to do so off the field, but he was a total stud when he was on it for Florida State. I had him as my number two back in this year’s draft because he already has established himself as a pass-catcher. And I’m not just talking about simple routes out of the backfield, he can line up all over the formation and be a viable part to the passing game. His feet and balance are special, which will give Minnesota fans something to cheer about after AP’s/AD’s departure.
I thought about putting one of the young signal-callers in this spot, but with the kind of poor season I expect from the Bears and Tom Savage seemingly keeping the starting gig in Houston (at least at the start of the year), I decided to go a different route. There are many mouths to fill on that New York offense, but Engram presents a dimension this team hasn’t had in years. The former Ole Miss tight-end was the fastest and most established route-runner in his class. I’ve seen him carry the Rebel offense all over the field by taking advantage of all kinds of mismatches. Defenses won’t be able to focus on the rookie TE with Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shephard lining up along him. That leaves him with a ton of one-on-ones and he will eat some of those slower linebacker alive.
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
Myles Garrett, Reuben Foster, Haason Reddick
I’m going with the obvious here. Garrett was the number one pick for a reason. He is a monster, who can do anything on the field. In run defense he stacks up his man and can release from his blocker late to bring down the ball-carrier. As a pass-rusher he can bend around the edge exceptionally for his size and has the power to bench-press offensive tackles in the lap of the quarterback. Greg Williams is an ultra-aggressive play-caller and he will let his dogs loose, giving the former Texas A&M superstar opportunities to beat his blocker one-on-one. I expect Garrett to put up double-digit sack numbers and really stand out as the athletic freak he is. More importantly, if he and some of those other high Browns draft-picks perform well, this will give Browns fans some hope.
Foster is another guy I had really high on my board despite some of the apparent injuries he had gone through at Alabama. His instincts and ability to display those in coverage are special and against the run he is like a flying missile trying to destroy runners. People out of 49ers camp have been raving about his activity and smarts on the training field. In his first couple of practices, he stole the show by diagnosing and undercutting route-patterns to come up with a pair of pick-sixes. I can’t wait to see the former Crimson Tide linebacker team up with NaVorro Bowman to build the best inside LB duo San Francisco has had since Bow and Patrick Willlis still suited up together. If you remember, the years the Niners reached the NFC Championship game, those two guys both flirted with the 100-tackle mark and made huge plays in the passing game. I see the same happening with Foster and Bowman as partners in crime.
I would have put Jamal Adams’ name here originally, but since I predict the Jets to not win a single game this upcoming season, I don’t think they will win any awards. Instead I went with one of the biggest risers in this year’s draft process. Reddick walked on at Temple as a safety, but was converted to defensive end. In his final season for the Owls he was among the leaders in tackles for loss, yet scouts wanted to see what he can do standing up. He really impressed people as a linebacker, especially at the Senior Bowl and the combine, and was eventually selected 13th overall in the draft by the Cardinals. The thing I was most impressed by was Reddick’s ability to cover backs and tight-ends one-on-one and while that may not earn him recognition, his downhill approach in the run game and ability to move outside and rush the passer will.
Coach of the Year:
Mike McCarthy, Doug Pederson, Mike Mularkey
Like I said, winning games is the major key to receiving recognition for your influence on the team. McCarthy is one of the premiere coaches in the league every year and his impact is felt more heavily because he still takes on the duties of calling plays on offense. Together with Aaron Rodgers and company this team will put up a bunch of points and blow some opponents out. I have the Packers on a roll starting the season with five straight wins and they would be 13-3 if not for losing a meanless game in the final week of the regular season, because they already locked up the NFC’s number one seed due to the direct matchup versus Atlanta. It’s very common for the voters to hand the MVP and Coach of the Year to the best team in the league and since they didn’t even award Bill Belichik last season after leading his team to the top overall record with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever suspended for the first four weeks, I don’t think he will get the credit this time around either.
After the Cowboys just fielded the best record in the NFC and the Giants made the playoffs as well for the first time since winning a Super Bowl, I see the Eagles winning ten games and earning a wildcard spot. For a large part of the 2016/17 season that Philly defense made a lot of noise. The biggest problem for that unit was the cornerback play on the outside. The front office decided to address that position of need heavily with their second- and third-round picks as well as trading for Buffalo’s Ronald Darby. With a fixed secondary, plus an improved and deeper front, the focus shifts to Carson Wentz and the offensive side of the ball. The additions of Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount should really help out the second-year QB develop into one of the bright stars of this league. I believe Doug Pederson will receive a ton of credit for the work with his young signal-caller and the way the Eagles turned the mindset of a team in transition to an instant contender.
It wasn’t easy for me to point out a third candidate for this award, because from the playoff teams I didn’t really see much improvement in their record, but I decided to go with Mularkey, because I believe the Titans will make the playoffs for the first time in nine years and their head coach will receive recognition for it. I just see them playing a solid brand of football, dominating opponents up front and avoiding dumb mistakes. Marcus Mariota will continue to rise, the duo of Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry will gash people and they will make some big plays on defense and special teams. Tennessee could easily win ten games and make the race for that final Wildcard spot less interesting, but that’s how I have things panning out. I think the accomplishment of getting back to the postseason and the kind of attitude the team will have, will put Mularkey in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
Comeback Player of the Year:
J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Rob Gronkowski
There’s at least five players in serious consideration for receiving this award. I chose Watt as the winner just because of the status he had before going down with an injury. Everybody talks about the Texans already having finished as the number one defense without number 99, but they can be much better in terms of points surrendered. I’m not quite sure if the three-time Defensive Player of the Year can return to the kind of level he was on in 2015, but I could easily see him record another 15-sack campaign with a multitude of TFLs and pass-knockdowns. With Clowney and Mercilus really coming into their own a year ago and big D.J. Reader swallowing up blocks on the interior, I see teams giving Watt better opportunities to win one-on-ones and put up big numbers, after what I’ve already seen him do while being given much more attention.
Number two here is Houston, who is just a couple of seasons away from recording 22 sacks. We saw what he can do briefly in the Chiefs’ matchup against the Broncos, in which he put up three sacks and completely wrecked the entire offense. It’s been a while since the KC edge-rusher has shown he can have a significant impact in consecutive weeks, but if he is really healthy finally again the sky’s the limit for that guy. With the emergence of Dee Ford on the opposite side and Tamba Hali giving the defense some excellent snaps, Houston has help around him to keep offensive coordinators from sliding the protection his way all the time. Much like Watt, I expect the Chiefs OLB to finish in the top five in sack totals and he puts up those kind of stats while being asked to drop into coverage quite a bit as well.
I thought about putting Tyrann Mathieu’s name here instead, but even though he wasn’t nearly at a hundred percent, he did play in ten games, while Gronkowski started only six. When Gronk is feeling fine, he is basically unstoppable. Too big for defensive backs, too fast for linebackers. The only thing that can actually take him out of his game is taking a big hit, which really only Earl Thomas last season and Bernard Pollard a couple of years ago have been able to do. He will once again rumble in the middle of the field, dragging defenders on his way, and catch the rock in the end-zone over smaller guys, as he has averaged almost a touchdown a game over his career. Another aspect he doesn’t get enough credit for in my opinion, is the effort as a run-blocker.
Green Bay Packers 12-4
Atlanta Falcons 11-5
Arizona Cardinals 10-6
New York Giants 10-6
Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
Seattle Seahawks 9-7
Teams in the hunt: Carolina Panthers (9-7), Dallas Cowboys (9-7), Minnesota Vikings (8-8), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
Like you already saw in my predictions for MVP and Coach of the Year, I expect the Packers to have a big season. They have one of the two best quarterbacks in the league, a nice receiving corp and a talented defense, with some young players ready to step up. The week 17 loss to the Lions is only there because I expect the team to rest some starters with the number one seed clinched already.
The Super Bowl losers rarely make it back to the big dance or even crack the playoffs, and while I don’t think their offense will be quite as prolific as it was in 2016, I don’t see that big of a drop-off with them. All the weapons are still there surrounding Matty Ice and the defense has a bunch of young pieces, who will only get better with experience, and their number one cornerback is coming back from injury.
I’m a firm believer of Bruce Arians and the Cardinals to make it back to the playoffs. Carson Palmer saw a massive drop from their NFC Championship run, but he should be better if his offensive line gives him more solid protection. He and Fitz will give it one more go with some of those young studs on their roster. Most importantly, I predict the defense to have a contender for Defensive Player of the Year, DROY and I had another young player listed as one of my breakout stars in my last article.
I have the G-Men winning the NFC East because of their divison record, lifting them above Philadelphia. They field a Super Bowl caliber defense and major weapons surrounding Eli Manning. I’m still curious to see how Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and company will gel in together, but in the NFL there’s no such thing as having too many pass-catchers and they almost have to be better at running the ball.
The Eagles will have to travel to the Meadowlands for the Wildcard Round due to the tie-breaker, but they are certainly built like a true contender. I expect Carson Wentz to turn into one of the bright stars at the position, the defense will wreck offensive gameplans all season long and the Philly special teams are some of the best year-in and year-out.
It wasn’t easy figuring out who will grab the final playoff spot, but after checking the third tie-breaker, the Seahawks came out victorious. The Seattle D is still one of the top units in the league and I just love Russell Wilson, but I haven’t seen them really address a horrific offensive line. The running game should be improved with Lacy and Rawls healthy, but the holes for them will close and Wilson will have to avoid rushers all day long.
New England Patriots 12-4
Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
Houston Texans 11-5
Oakland Raiders 10-6
Baltimore Ravens 10-6
Tennessee Titans 9-7
Teams in the hunt: Denver Broncos (9-7), Kansas City Chiefs (9-7), Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)
While many people are talking about a perfect season for the Patriots, I think I have more realistic expectations. The AFC East should be a cakewalk for them, but they also play the NFC South, at Mile High, the Black Hole and Heinz Field – that’s not easy. They could reach up to 14 wins, but I just don’t see them winning every single game, but much rather blow weaker teams out and be on the losing end in some close games against tough competition.
The Steelers earn a first-round bye thanks to their direct match-up versus the Texans. The Quattro-bees (including Martavis Bryant) are for real, the offensive line is one of the best in the league and the defense is young and hungry. I expect Ryan Shazier to turn into one of the top linebackers in the game and Cameron Hayward is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, as he is ready for his comeback.
Bill O’Brien and his Texans squad have won the AFC South the last two years with an elite defense and question-marks surrounding the quarterback position. Well, the defense was ranked number one in yards allowed in 2016 without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Number 99 is back for this campaign and the candidates Tom Savage and DeShaun Watson will certainly be an upgrade to Brock Osweiler.
Everybody expects the Raiders to challenge New England for the crown in the AFC, but I don’t see them winning more than ten games, just because their schedule is bru-tal. I actually had them outside the playoffs looking in, with a 9-7 record, but I decided to give them the win at Kansas City. That’s why the Chiefs didn’t make the cut and the fun part about these predictions – I have all the other AFC West teams winning nine games and none will reach the postseason.
The Ravens bounce back in major fashion, winning double-digit games for the first time in three years. Ozzie Newsome and the front office went heavy on defense with the free agency additions (see Tony Jefferson) and in the draft, as they spent their four picks in the first three rounds all on that side of the ball. Offensively, the additions of Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead will give Joe Flacco more security and they will lean on a monster defense to guide the way.
My final playoff team is the Tennessee Titans. This is where it got tricky. Like I already said, I had the Chiefs, Broncos and Chargers all finishing at 9-7, but the Titans made the cut due to their inner-conference record. I think Marcus Mariota is a star, the organization has surrounded him with pass-catchers, the offensive line is right behind the one in Dallas and on defense they have improved a questionable secondary. Plus, I think Adoree Jackson will be a Pro Bowl return man.
New York Giants vs. New England Patriots
And so it’s set. The Giants and Patriots will square off in the big game for the third time in ten years. Manning vs. Brady III. Will the five-time champion finally defeat his kryptonite or will Eli pass his older brother with three championships won? You’ll have to stay tuned.
Here’s the full season schedule, all filled out: