Why you should care
Because who doesn’t like starting football season with a few answers?
Year after year, the National Football League proves a volatile beast, so we felt it appropriate to make a few bold predictions. Will the Falcons, like Carolina before them, fall victim to the Super Bowl hangover? Can Pittsburgh — or anyone, for that matter — finally oust New England in the AFC? Which rookies will shine, and is there an undervalued running back to watch? One thing we know for sure: Jay Cutler is back with a (very understated) vengeance.
Deshaun Watson Will Start by Week 4; DeShone Kizer and the Browns Will Be … Decent?
Projecting a young quarterback’s future success based on preseason results is a crapshoot. As Fox Sports broadcaster and three-time Super Bowl champion Mark Schlereth explains, “Preseason football is incredibly vanilla. It’s the most basic concepts being run on both sides of the ball.” Still, that won’t stop fans from reading far too much into the results.
This preseason, the four highest-drafted rookie gunslingers — Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes and Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer — all performed admirably. As Alex Smith’s backup, Mahomes incurs zero pressure to play. Trubisky has impressed, but Chicago remains steadfast in their plan to sit him all season. But, for the other two, this season could get dicey. Watson’s potential upside far outweighs any mediocrity that Tom Savage provides Houston. The Texans have playoff aspirations, but if they start 0-2 (which is likely), a poor showing against the lowly Jaguars could seal Savage’s fate. From there, they’ll need to make a swift change and set young Watson loose.
The big news in preseason rookie QB world is that Kizer, Cleveland’s second-round pick, has already beaten out Brock Osweiler for the starting gig. Head coach Hue Jackson ditching the zero from the start is a good move and, under Kizer’s direction, the Browns should be markedly improved from last year’s 1-15 finish. They won’t be good, but this team has potential to be solidly mediocre. That’s progress.
The Vikings Will Make the NFC Championship
Minnesota will always face an uphill battle, so long as Aaron Rodgers is in the NFC North. But one look at the Vikings’ schedule shows that the likelihood of the Norsemen mounting a formidable mid-season charge is extremely high. This team could very well be 8-3 heading into December — right on par with Green Bay. No matter who wins the division, the Vikes’ stifling defense, plus a breakout season from rookie running back Dalvin Cook and a healthy Sam Bradford, will keep them competitive come the wintry postseason. Bradford’s public approval rating plummets annually, but he is still a talented passer capable of driving an offense. If the offensive line shows improvement from last season’s troubles, Minnesota will have a dynamic attack.
Amari Cooper Will Lead the NFL in Receiving Yards
Perhaps the victim of East Coast bias, excitement surrounding Cooper seems much more muted when compared to that of Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant or Julio Jones. Much like Beckham, Cooper has made the Pro Bowl each of his seasons in the league. He is a dominant physical specimen, like Bryant and Jones, and with Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, Cooper has a Pro Bowl talent throwing him the ball. After cracking 1,150 yards last season, I expect Cooper to make a marked leap in yardage this year. The 1,400–1,500 marker seems about right.
Pittsburgh Will Win the AFC and the Tom Brady/Patriots Relationship Will Slowly Show Signs of Erosion
Could this possibly be the year that the Patriot begins to disintegrate? Chances are, any decline won’t be felt via New England’s on-field product. This team could be an absolute force, but, as Schlereth notes, the club’s off-season strategy of trading away multiple draft picks for established, prominent players could signal reason for concern. “Those picks have always been something they coveted under Bill Belichick,” Schlereth tells OZY. “It just feels like this could be the last hoorah for either Belichick or Brady, then they may go in another direction.” The chances of New England spending a combined $40 million to keep both Tom Brady and backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo next year are incredibly slim. New England clearly has future plans for Garoppolo, so if Brady wants to play until age 45, he’d better start shopping for other uniforms.
On the flipside, Pittsburgh enters another season with a prolific passer who constantly entertains retirement. “Big Ben” Roethlisberger is on record saying that he now views his career on a year-by-year basis. This season, he’s aiming for a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and third Super Bowl title. Roethlisberger’s backfield mate Le’Veon Bell spent much of the preseason away from the team, holding out in hopes of earning a contract extension, but he once again should be the league’s top back. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant will shine out wide, and a fierce defense led by James Harrison and his heir apparent, T.J. Watt, might finally help Pittsburgh topple New England for the first time since 2011.
Derrick Henry Makes the Pro Bowl
Looking for a sleeper team to pick ahead of the playoffs? You might want to choose the Tennessee Titans. In quarterback Marcus Mariota, Tennessee has a front man capable of becoming the league’s next big star. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll be a perennial Pro Bowler. Tennessee’s wide receivers corps runs deep, Delanie Walker (tight end) and a huge offensive line constitute a fierce front, and the defense can hang with anyone in the league. But the keys to Tennessee’s success stand behind Mariota. The two-headed running back attack of DeMarco Murray and former Alabama star Derrick Henry is an absolute force. I’m inclined to think Henry will win the starting job outright. But should the injury-prone Murray go down, Henry with a full workload could turn out 2016 Ezekiel Elliott–level production. Watch the Titans win the AFC South.
Jay Cutler Will Win AFC Comeback Player of the Year
Dolphins brass suffered a lot of backlash in early August when Miami signed football’s incessant sourpuss Jay Cutler out of semiretirement and away from the Fox Sports booth on a one-year, $10 million deal. The backlash, of course, was due to Colin Kaepernick’s continued position atop the quarterback unemployment line. But signing Cutler was a sound decision. Sure, he may resemble a melting couch potato, but Cutler is a confident, talented signal-caller whose best year came under head coach Adam Gase’s complex offense.
In 2015, Gase joined Cutler and Chicago for one successful season as the Bears offensive coordinator, fresh off two record-breaking seasons as Peyton Manning’s OC in Denver. “I thought they were going to spoon-feed the offense to Cutler,” Schlereth says. “But it was exactly what they ran with Peyton Manning. That shows how much confidence Gase has in Jay Cutler.”
The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets have already conceded the season, trading away talent for draft picks and releasing formidable veterans. The AFC is clearly New England’s to win. Cutler won’t change that, but he will carve up the rest of the division and much of the AFC. Watch the Dolphins win 10 games and make the playoffs and the Jets give Cutler one last two-year deal.