With NFL training camp and preseason in full swing, the regular season is right around the corner. There’s been plenty to talk about in the offseason, whether it’s the Patriots’ loaded roster, the Chargers’ impending move to Los Angeles, Jay Cutler’s un-retirement, or the Redskins and Kirk Cousins fighting, but now the real fun begins. With that, let’s make some predictions for the upcoming season.
1. The Patriots Finish With Three 1,000-Yard Receivers
While much of the attention surrounding the Patriots has been centered around whether a “19-0” season is possible or whether Tom Brady will finally show his age, the amount of talent and depth on this team is a major headline on its own. The Pats added impressive talent like Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, and Mike Gillislee to a squad that just put up 546 yards and 34 points in the Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski. This squad boasts a roster that can be a top-five offense and defense in 2017.
On offense, Brady will have plenty of talented skill players to throw to. Not only does Gronkowski return seemingly fully healthy, but Julian Edelman is coming off another productive season and the team added a huge offensive weapon in Cooks this offseason. Cooks and Brady have developed quite the rapport, Gronk has been dominating (especially in the red zone), and Edelman, coming in with no issues regarding his troublesome foot, looks to be heavily featured as always.
Those three players represent one of the best (if not the best) receiving trios in the game and have the chance to each put up 1,000+ receiving yard seasons, a feat that only five teams have ever accomplished, most recently in 2008 with the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston (who?). If Steve effing Breaston can be part of the club, it shouldn’t be too much to expect from Edelman, Cooks, and Gronk as well.
2. Dak Prescott Doesn’t Go Through A Sophomore Slump
Prescott had a spectacular rookie season, leading the Cowboys to the NFC North division title by throwing for 3,667 yards with 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He also had an elite-level 67.8% completion percentage.
Some observers point to fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott’s break-out season and/or the top-end offensive line that Prescott played behind as the reason for his success, but Prescott showed more than enough times that he has the elite talent to stand on his own. As a rookie, he made very few mistakes and showed the ability from Day 1 to lead a sophisticated NFL offense.
If anything, Prescott should improve upon his 2016 season with a full year of NFL experience under his belt and the offense around him only improving. Star wide receiver Dez Bryant, ever-reliable tight end Jason Witten and up-and-coming slot receiver Cole Beasley will all be by Prescott’s side once again in 2017. Elliott may be out the first six games, but he will be there when it counts.
3. The Titans Claim Their First AFC South Title Since 2008
Over the past eight seasons, only the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans have won the AFC South. The last time neither team won the division was in 2008, when the Titans finished 13-3 and claimed the top spot. While the Titans finished with the same regular season record as the 2016 division winner (the Texans), they lost out because of their inferior in-division record.
If the Titans hadn’t lost franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota late in the season due to a broken leg, they likely would’ve finished on top of the division. But with a healthy Mariota, a strong offensive line and running back core, and new additions to the team like Eric Decker, Corey Davis, Logan Ryan, and Adoree’ Jackson, the Titans have the talent to take the next step forward.
4. Even With Jay Cutler, The Dolphins Don’t Miss A Beat
First of all, “don’t miss a beat” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on track to be a “good” team in 2017. The Dolphins stand no chance (like the rest of the AFC East) in taking the division title from the Patriots. Last year Miami made the playoffs as a wild card team before being blown out by the Steelers in the first round.
With Ryan Tannehill out for the entire 2017 season after re-injuring his knee, Cutler was persuaded to delay his retirement and reunite with his former offensive coordinator, Adam Gase. Cutler had one of his better seasons in 2015 when Gase was his OC in Chicago with 3,659 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 64.4% completion percentage.
Cutler barely qualifies as an equal replacement in talent and will help manage the Dolphins offense by taking snaps and handing them directly to budding star running back Jay Ajayi. He will also on occasion throw a good amount of quick, short-to-intermediate passes to star slot wide receiver Jarvis Landry, but that will be it for the most part. Overall, the Dolphins will likely finish in the 7-9/8-8 range and perhaps be an outside contender for a wild card spot.
5. David Johnson Finishes With At Least 425 Offensive Touches
Johnson was one of the best running backs in the NFL last season with over 2,100 yards from scrimmage and 20 offensive touchdowns. He was the key cog for the Cardinals offense and finished with a hefty 373 offensive touches as well, but our money is on him eclipsing that total in 2017.
The team did virtually nothing to add any depth at the running back position behind Johnson, further securing his top spot. There’s even been talk of Johnson possibly getting 30 offensive touches a game, which could equal out to 480 touches over the course of an entire season. While that would be nearly impossible (only five running backs have finished with 450 in one season), 425 is a very feasible number for one of the best offensive players in the NFL today.
6. Joey Bosa Leads The NFL In Sacks In Only His Second Season
A contract fiasco led to Bosa not making his debut until week five of last season. In 12 games, he finished with 10.5 sacks, which was still good for 13th place in the NFL (tied with Brian Orakpo). If he had played an entire 16-game season at the same pace (0.875 sacks per game), he would’ve finished with 14 for the season, good for second in the league behind Vic Beasley’s 15.5.
With an entire offseason under his belt and coming off a strong finish (5.5 sacks over the last six games), Bosa has the chance not only to improve on his total, but to truly set himself apart as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Watch for him to lead the league.
7. Alex Smith Will Be Benched For Patrick Mahomes
The Chiefs surprised the NFL community when they traded up to select Mahomes early in the first round this past April. It was a signal that Smith’s time as the team’s starting quarterback was winding down. Most signs point to Smith likely being released next offseason, as the team can save over $13 million in cap space ($17 million in cap savings, $3.6 million in dead money) if they cut him next offseason.
Smith has only been able to take this Chiefs team so far. He’s only finished with more than 3,400 passing yards and 20+ passing touchdowns in two of his four seasons with Kansas City. He threw for only 15 touchdowns in 2016, averaging one per game (he missed one game). He also ran for under 200 yards (134) and 50 carries (48) for the first time in five seasons, but did finish with a career-high five rushing touchdowns in 2016.
Mahomes is a breath of fresh air for the Chiefs: he has a big arm and consistently made big plays at Texas Tech (he led the NCAA in 2016 with 5,052 passing yards and had 41 passing touchdowns in 2016).
The Chiefs have true offensive play-makers in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, but they haven’t yet lived up to their full potential. At some point this season, the Chiefs will realize that Mahomes gives them the best chance to do just that.
8. The Broncos Finish Last In Their Division
The Broncos have yet another year of quarterback competition between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. So far, neither gunslinger seems like a great option, and the team could be in for another headache at the quarterback position.
On top of that, the team will likely struggle for consistent production from the running back position, with their myriad of mostly uninspiring options. That includes C.J. Anderson (coming off a major surgery, also had 4.0 yards per carry in 2016), Jamaal Charles (coming off multiple major knee surgeries) and Devontae Booker (struggled mightily as a rookie, averaging only 3.5 rushing yards per carry).
Also, while the Broncos boast one of the best secondaries in the league, they do have some questions on their front seven and against the run. They gave up 2,085 rushing yards (fifth most in the league) and 15 touchdowns (tied for 12th most in league). They also need several players to step up on their front seven, including Shane Ray, Todd Davis, and Adam Gotsis, to take the pressure off Brandon Marshall, Von Miller and Derek Wolfe.
Overall, the Broncos will face stiff competition from the Raiders and Chiefs, and even an improved Chargers squad. This is the year that their precarious situation at the most important position in sports bites them in the ass.
9. Kevin Johnson Makes The Texans Forget About A.J. Bouye
While Bouye broke out in a big way in 2016, he signed a lucrative contract with the Jaguars during the offseason, leaving the Texans with a big hole at cornerback. Enter third-year Kevin Johnson. He was the team’s first round pick in 2015 and had a very successful rookie season with 54 tackles, nine pass break-ups, and one interception. He dealt with an injury most of last season but has recovered and appears ready to step up after the loss of Bouye.
Competing with Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph for a spot on the outside, Johnson has the draft pedigree and talent to win a role rather easily. Once viewed as the top defensive back in the 2015 draft class, he has the chance to come in and help soften the blow of losing a top cornerback in free agency. Johnson can help round out one of the already more complete defensive units in the NFL.
10. The Falcons Go Back To The Super Bowl
Simply put, the Falcons were one of the best teams in the NFL last season. One major meltdown doesn’t take away from the fact that the team nearly claimed their first ever Super Bowl win. And despite their coaching changes on both offense and defense, their offense will likely be one of the best in the league again in 2017.
They boast one of the best offensive lines in the league, the reigning NFL MVP, a strong running back core, the reigning NFL sacks leader, and one of the best wide receivers in the league. They were able to add a solid defensive tackle (Dontari Poe) and one of the best defensive end prospects in the entire draft (Takkarist McKinley). Not to mention that one of the top cornerbacks in the league, Desmond Trufant, will be able to return after suffering a season-ending injury last year.
The mastermind of the Falcons offense, Kyle Shanahan, left the team to become head coach of the 49ers, and Steve Sarkisian, one of the top offensive minds in college football while at Washington and USC, comes in with high expectations. Overall, this team got even better during the offseason, and that will show in 2017.